Content uploaded by Johan Awang Othman
All content in this area was uploaded by Johan Awang Othman on Feb 28, 2020
Content may be subject to copyright.
© Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia, 2019. This work is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution
(CC BY) (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Constructing Gender in the Performance of
"Bermulanya Di Sini…Kedah Tua"
Johan Awang bin Othman* and Pravina Manoharan
School of the Arts, Universiti Sains Malaysia, MALAYSIA
*Corresponding author: email@example.com
Published online: 25 January 2019
To cite this article: Johan Awang bin Othman and Pravina Manoharan. 2019. Constructing gender in the performance of
"Bermulanya Di Sini…Kedah Tua". Wacana Seni Journal of Arts Discourse 18(Supp. 1): 27–32. https://doi.org/10.21315/
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.21315/ws2019.18.Supp.1.4.
This study explores the theoretical basis for the music composition that accompanies the theatre play
"Bermulanya di Sini…Kedah Tua". One of the main approaches of the music composition is the symbolic
associations of gendering that can be derived from the narrative text of the play. Through referencing various
arguments regarding the idea of gender, particularly the concept of gender as discursive and as the somatic,
the music composition approach addresses the meaning of gendering and signication symbolically. In general,
the formulation for the referencing of gender in the music does not privilege either one of the two categories
of argument regarding gender as either textual or a corporeal factor. These structuring of the somatic are
taken into consideration with the artistic license taken advantage in the composition process. Essentially, the
music reects the richness of gender associations that can be derived from the narrative text to illustrate that
gendering is a malleable signier.
Keywords: gender, music theatre, music composition
The abstraction of the term and concept of gender have been an ongoing discursive negotiation, mainly
addressing its ontological signication as either natural or merely a cultural construct. Ranging from Simone de
Beauvoir's assertion of gender as a "becoming" to Judith Butler's argument of gender as performative, as well as
the ancient Greek's vicissitudes and less structured gendering and sex dichotomy, the delimitation of the idea of
gender is not xed. Given this condition that inuences the multiple perception of gendering, the composition
of music for the theatre play "Bermulanya Di Sini…Kedah Tua" that references symbolic associations with
gendering addresses one main concern that is to link two abstract factors; music and gender. This paper will
focus on the exploration of the notion of gender as a construct, nature, and culture dichotomy within the context
of constructing music for this play. This paper does not explicate on the composition of the music directly, but
instead, discuss how the notion of gender is being conceptualised as an abstraction that subsequently informs
the composition of the music for "Bermulanya Di Sini…Kedah Tua". The composition process for the music
of the theatre production is based on a pre-composition structuring, which also includes the conceptualisation
of varying signications of the sound world. As such, the meaning of the sound of the music in relation to
gendering of the subjects of the play, as one of the main kinds of signications of sound and music for the play,
is one of the major pre-composition factors that informs the music composition process. Essentially, the music
for this theatre project is an avenue that illustrates and explores the discourse of gendering in the following
section. The following sections discuss various arguments pertaining to the abstraction of gender, its discursivity
in relation to its corporeality, which in turn, contributes to the philosophical and semiotics premise for the music
composition of the play.
Wacana Seni Journal of Arts Discourse. Jil./Vol.18(Supp.1). 2019
CONSTRUCTING AND CONTEXTUALISING THE IDEA OF GENDER IN THE MUSIC THEATRE
OF "BERMULANYA DI SINI…KEDAH TUA"
In general, studies that suggest an ontological distinction between the body and its gender articulate a critiquing
of the poststructuralists' notion of the body as purely discursive that denaturalises the body. This disagreement
regarding the existence of a purely discursive body endeavours to bring back the idea of the natural body as
a distinctive somatic material that has an existence independent from culture. However, these arguments do
not undermine the existence and importance of culture despite suggesting the autonomy of the natural body
from its enculturation and, hence, gendering. The reclamation of the body as a natural body in contention to
the poststructuralists' idea of the body as discursive aligns the relationship between the body and its gender to
a relationship between nature and culture, respectively. The play itself portrays symbolically the cultivation of
nature and its subsequent transformation into culture; the workings of metal into cultural objects in particular.
This translation of nature into culture can be itself a symbolic expression of the binary dichotomy between
nature and culture and, hence, body and its gender inscription.
Kelly Oliver's "The Flesh Become Word: The Body in Kristeva's Theory" (Oliver 2004) and Carol
Bigwood's "Renaturalising the Body" (Bigwood 1998) present extensive discussion on the poststructuralists'
formulation of the body as purely discursive. According to Oliver, Kristeva's formulation of the body undermines
the sovereignty of language as the sole means for the body to exist. In addition, Kristeva also suggests that
not only are the body and language distinct but also dependent on one another; implied in the context of the
semiotic and the symbolic, respectively (Oliver 2004: 344). This context essentially aligns the idea of the
semiotic and symbolic to the body and soul, respectively. Therefore, given that the soul can also mean the mind
and, subsequently, culture (351, n6), Kristeva's formulation suggests the interdependence between the body and
culture. Hence, the body can be considered as distinct from culture and not purely discursive. Oliver further
establishes this distinction of the body as natural by stressing the tangible materiality of the body as an "organic
tissue" (342) and "uninscribable" (346) by language. As such, the idea of gendering within the construction
of music, should address the question of inscribing music "onto" the body of the performers of sounds that
Bigwood's arguments not only assert the distinction between the body and gender but also suggest their
interdependence, particularly through her criticism of Judith Butler's notion of the body as "thoroughly culturally
produced" (1998: 102). Bigwood also criticises Butler and the poststructuralists not only for dening the body
as a purely cultural construct but also asserting "natural", pre-gendered or pre-cultured bodies to be a product
of culture that is "disemboweled of their full existential content" (103). As such, Bigwood accuses Butler of
going "too far in her denaturalisation of the body" (102), which reduces the body to a construct that reects a
"complete abandonment of nature and support of purely cultural determinants" (102). In this regard, the sound
and music that supplements the body movement of the performers marks the body as a site of inscription. The
body is regarded as a surface that can be enculturated. For instance, the body that touches the water, can be
inscribed as a body associated with a feminine gendering, once the music composition establishes that water
as a metaphor for the feminine. This subjectivation of water as feminine is arbitrary, and hence, alluding to the
general post-structuralist idea of signs and its meanings as an unstable.
Within her conception of the "natural" body as a "perceptual body", Bigwood not only denes the
natural body as distinct from culture but also demarcates the relationship between the body and culture as
"inextricably tangled" (109). Bigwood asserts this entanglement as a continuous relation between the body and
culture or body and gender and remarks that "we must arm a certain continuity in the connection of gender
to the body" (109). The association of water with the body in one of the scenes when the princess touches the
water illustrates the association of water as feminine with the female sex who touches the water before her
dance with a lover.
Apart from positing the distinction between the body and its gender in terms of the interdependence
between the body and culture, Rom Harré (1998) and Iris Young (1998) also present other ways of formulating
the relationship between the body and its gender. Harré's article "Man and Woman" suggests that the body, as
a physical material, is itself responsible for the projection of its gendering. This implies that gender as a culture
is not imposed onto the body but instead originates from the body. This argument opposes the conception of
the body in the play as a gendered surface. Harré denes those aspects of the body that project its signications
of gender as the "tertiary sexual markers" (12). Examples of "tertiary sexual markers" are hairstyles or even
dress codes which serve as an "illusion of sexual category" that is "manufactured" by the body to signify the
dierences between the men and women (Harré 1998: 12–13).
Johan Awang bin Othman and Pravina Manoharan
The body can also become marked as a gendered body through its exposure to socio-historical events;
an idea that Young articulates in her article "Throwing like a Girl". For these reason, Young cautions against
perceiving the body outside of a socio-historical context. It can be seen that to isolate the body as an ahistorical
body would "reduce women's condition simply to unintelligibility if we 'explain' it by appeal to some natural
and ahistorical feminine essence" (260). Essentially, Young's assertion of a body that is prone to the eects of
external forces such as socio-historical factors through time implies that the body and culture as distinct. At this
point, it is not known about the socio-historical development of the perception of gender within the culture of
the Kedah Tua. This gap in the research will need to be worked on in future studies.
In the context of sound re-presentations of the gendered body of the performers in the play, the notion
of a natural and non-discursive body most likely cannot apply because the characters are based entirely on a
ctional reconstruction of an oral and written history and myth; it is not based on any existing human gures.
Thus, this paper argues that since the characters are based entirely on an oral and written source, their gendered
body can only be considered as purely a textual or discursive construct. As a result, it would be more viable to
contextualise the re-presentations and gender inscription of the body of the performers as a body that is already
a discursive formation and always gendered.
The argument that opposes the idea of the body as having a distinct materiality from its culture or
gender claims that the body is always already a cultural construct and exists purely as an abstraction. The body
as a cultural construct implies a body that is formed within the context of social and historical constraints. The
following studies discuss the varying ways in which the body is perceived as a construct and the contestation
of the reality of the body as esh. These many approaches of conceptualising the body as purely discursive that
are presented below also show that there are ample arguments to further support and inform the treatment of the
gendered body as text that the music supplements.
In the article "Corporeal Archetypes and Power: Preliminary Clarications and Considerations of
Sex", Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (1998) disagrees with the idea of the materiality of the body as purely natural.
Sheets-Johnstone criticises the idea of "corporeal archetypes", which assert that the materiality of the body is
not only natural but also has its own natural way of behaving according to its natural male or female sex. Each
is seen to have its natural habits of gesturing or acting within "gender-specic ways" that imply gendering as
already inherent in the natural body (Sheets-Johnstone 1998: 157). Sheets-Johnstone illustrates an example of
the "corporeal archetypes" derived from the study of "archetypal primate behaviour" that explores "sex specic
archetypes" (160). This archetype states that "females are submissive, males are dominant" (160); the kind of
bias that Sheets-Johnstone alludes to is the bias perception of the "corporeal archetypes" that privileges the
masculine. This biasness can be seen in the portrayal of female and male gestures in the love dance. The soft
and sensual gestures of the female dancer that is constantly supported by the hands and body of the male dancer
implies the privileging of the masculine as the stronger of the two sexes. Essentially, Sheets-Johnstone criticises
the archetype for tenuously asserting the existence of a natural body and that gender is already naturally
constituted; which can be asserted that masculine and feminine relationship as strength and gentile, respectively.
Two key points support her criticism. First, past studies that delineate the "natural" body through establishing
"corporeal archetypes" are inferred from the study of nonhuman primate's body behaviours. This inference is in
turn questionable because it assumes that the bodies of non-human primates correspond closely to the human
body (173). Second, these studies place too much emphasis on the denition and constitution of the female
corporeal archetypes instead of the male, implying that the "natural" body is dened only within the context of
the "shallow" masculine perspective (173). Sheets-Johnstone makes reference to Ladelle McWhorter's (1989)
article "Culture or Nature? The Function of the Term 'Body' in the Work of Michel Foucault" to conclude that
even the scientists' denition of the "natural" materiality of the body is itself laden with cultural meanings and
is not a "'clean' body which underlies all the inscriptions that subdue it" (150). In this regard, Sheets-Johnstone
questions the objectivity of these scientists and suggests that even the pre-discursive body is itself already
discursively constituted, implying that the body archetype is also already a cultured body (176, n23).
In the article "Material Bodies", Susan Hekman (1998) also posits that there is no such thing as a pre-
discursive body. She makes reference to Butler's conception of the body as always already a discursive body and
an eect of "a specic formation of power/discourse" in order to contest Bordo's argument that asserts the body
as having agency to resist discursivity or enculturation (66). As such, this paper argues that the text of the play
itself constitutes an enforcement of the masculine and feminine normative, which the music does not judge but
supplements, and hence, being in complicit with a power relation that regulates the privileging of the masculine.
Despite the opposing views of Bordo and Butler, Hekman makes the point that both Bordo and Butler concur
that the body is culturally constituted. The dierence between the arguments is that Bordo separates and makes
distinction between the body and culture, whereas Butler conates culture together with the body as a singular
materiality. Essentially, Butler's notion of the body is a discursive body without a prior "real" body.
Wacana Seni Journal of Arts Discourse. Jil./Vol.18(Supp.1). 2019
Dennis D. Waskul's article "The Naked Self: Being a Body in Televideo Cybersex" (Waskul 2010)
and Steve Kroll-Smith's article "Chemically Reactive Bodies, Knowledge, and Society" (Kroll-Smith 2010)
discuss how the discursive body is also a socially constituted body. In Waskul's discussion of the body's virtual
signication in the context of televideo cybersex, he demarcates the social constitution of the body as "innately
predetermined" that consequently exists as "something that people read, interpret, present, conceal, and make
meaningful in an ongoing negotiated process of situated social interaction" (276).
Kroll-Smith gives a similar view regarding the social construction of the body as a body that society
gives meaning through being "fabricated in talk; [...] literally, gures of speech, tropes [and] embodied
conversations, [...]" (127). Kroll-Smith illustrates this social construction and social contextualisation of the
body in his discussion regarding the body of the new born infant that is accorded social recognition by state
certication. On this point, Kroll-Smith explains that "A state's bureau of vital statistics [...] locates the body in
demographic and numerical coordinates. [...] Its goal is the [...] objective location of the body in society" (128).
This remark suggests that only a socially marked body is a recognised body, implying that there is no body that
exists outside of its social fabrication. The text of the play has clearly demarcated the social infrastructure of the
subjects and consequently delimited the women to being entertainers and a lover of an illicit aair, who have no
voice accept through the masculine. An intelligibility which is only accorded by the masculine. In this regard,
the musical soundscape on the whole, arms the binary privileging of the masculine, in order to sabotage this
normative conditioning by way of a hyperbolic illustration of the women as soft and men as strong; bringing
to attention the imposition of hierarchy in the gender binary structuring of the play's text. This hierarchy
mainly occurs in the public space. In relation to this, Karen Dias (2010) interprets the social constitution of the
body in the context of its relation to power and regulation. In her article "The Ana Sanctuary: Women's Pro-
Anorexic Narratives in Cyberspace", Dias states that the socially constituted body is a body that is constantly
being regulated by social or cultural norms. This form of constraint occurs especially in the public space and
particularly on the woman's body (399).
The notion of the gendered body as signifying an ideal gendering permeates throughout the narrative
of the play. The normative ideal of the feminine as submissive is one amongst many illustrations of the
performative signication of the gendered body constrained within the normative. Within the context of the
cultured body as a constrained body mentioned above, there are many studies that exemplify how the body is
regulated and cultured. In the article "The Body's Problems with Illness", Arthur Frank (2010) reects on the
question "Do I have a body, or am I a body?" to argue that the subject of the self is dependent on the body to
exist, which in turn is dependent on a "set of ideal images" derived from the popular culture (41). Extending
the above argument, Eric Plemons' article "Envisioning the Body in Relation: Finding Sex, Changing Sex",
argues that the notion of the ideal image is related to the mind and, hence, a perception of the mind (Plemons,
2010: 320). At this point, the denition of the body as culture undermines the materiality of the body as natural
or biological. Kathryn Pauly Morgan (1998) pursues this issue within the context of cosmetic surgery in her
article "Women and the Knife: Cosmetic Surgery and the Colonization of Women's Bodies", and argues that
the "given" biological body is already a cultured body and, therefore, makes a point that there is no natural
body outside that "precedes" its enculturation (344, n10). Essentially, Morgan's argument relates to the idea of
the desire for the body to be marked by cosmetic surgical intervention as reecting the body as "intimately and
inextricably" linked to culture (344, n10).
Although the idea of the body of the masculine and feminine in the play demonstrates a normative
operating by way of dissimulation instead of an overt surface inscription, the gendering signication can be
derived and identied through the varying dance gestures that complements the music. In this regard, the music
can be situated and tracked as the origin of the gender normative signication. Morgan's idea of the body
marked by surgical intervention as exposing the body as a cultural embodiment is very similar to Mary Kosut's
assertion regarding the body as culture in the context of body modications practiced by the modern primitive
movement (Kosut 2010). In the article "Extreme Bodies/Extreme Culture", Kosut studies body modications in
the modern primitivism movement and denes these modied bodies as "extreme bodies" (168). In fact, Kosut
posits that these "extreme bodies" also expose the delimitations of the body's denition (198). In relation to this
point, Kosut explains that it is culture that is responsible for what constitutes the delimitations and denition of
body, suggesting that the body itself is extremely entangled with, and subsequently "liberated" by culture (198).
Apart from the notion of culture embodied as a marked body through surgical modication or
grooming, culture can also take form through the actions of the body. In the article "Assume the Position: The
Changing Contours of Sexual Violence", Patricia Hill Collins (2010) argues that the gendered body can be
dened through the act of rape. Collins explains that the body that does the raping denes itself as a masculine
body, whereas the body that is being raped is a body that gestures a body being dominated and, hence, feminine
Johan Awang bin Othman and Pravina Manoharan
(87). This argument stresses that the body is a construct that is analogous to its actions, in this instance, the act
of rape. As such, the composer denes the natural elements and factor within his own terms of gendering; based
on an artistic license to name the earth as masculine, water as feminine and storm as masculine amongst others.
The violence of the storm alludes to a "rape" of the people victimised by it. Hence, the storm as masculinised
and the people feminised. This abstraction informs the soundscape of bass sounds that is normally associated
with the male voice.
Another example of the body as an embodiment of culture is the formulation of the body as a
linguistic and historical construction. In the article "Nietzsche, Geneology, History", Foucault denes the
body as a construct of language and history through asserting the body as "the inscribed surface of events
(traced by language and dissolved by ideas) [...] a body totally imprinted by history [...]" (Foucault 2010a:
83). Furthermore, Foucault denes this linguistic and historically determined body as a "docile" body that
signies a body that is "in the grip of very strict powers, which imposed on it constraints, prohibitions, or
obligations" (2010b: 180). Butler on the other hand, in her article "Foucault and the Paradox of Bodily
Inscriptions", observes Foucault's denition of the body as "inscribed surface” and "docile" to imply
that there is a non-culturally constructed body prior to its inscription that is also prone to being shaped by
external forces or power (Butler 1989: 5). Although Butler recognises the paradox in Foucault's denition of
the body, she still maintains the perception of the "inscribed" body as always a cultural or discursive body
without a pre-discursive existence and, hence, as always a cultured construct because "it [the body] bears
on language all the time" (2011: 37). Moreover, Butler also questions the irreducibility of the body's sex as
the natural basis that pre-exists its enculturation and xity to a gendered existence and, therefore, suggests
that sex is itself already a cultural construct. As such, Butler is suspicious of the xity of the material sex
to its gendering and, hence, raises issues pertaining to the "natural facts of sex [as] discursively produced"
(1990: 9) and that gender is a term that "absorbs and displaces 'sex'" (2011: xv).
How can gender be associated with sound? How can sound signify gender? What is the signicance of
associating sound to gendering? These questions address one of the factors that involves the construction of the
body and identity of the subjects being portrayed in this theatre work. Given that gender has been normalised
as merely a surface signication – the mere bifurcation of the body into male and female, hence, masculine
and feminine, respectively – the sounds selected for the performance enculturate the gendering of the subjects
beyond the body, in terms of transgressing the normalised associative signications of the body, its sex and
gendering. As such, the sounds of water dripping supplementing the dance of the lovers, not only portrays the
space as literally within the area of a river, but also to extend the water normative signication to femininity to
the male dancer as well. This undermining of the masculine and feminine distinction in the context of sound and
gender association questions the possible interpretation of how gender is being constituted by the ancients.
On the whole, subject gendering has been the site of enforcement of the norms as well as contestation in theatre,
both the ancient, traditional and modern, the global North and South. Arguments and questions pertaining to the
portrayal of gender norms, gendering enforced and contested, in theatre should be sustained to illustrate that the
mark of a gendered subject is never stable. Despite the challenges of having the music to portray, to a certain
extent, the abstract idea of gendering, the composition of the music for "Bermulanya Di Sini…Kedah Tua"
premises its construction closely on the various factors relating to the discursive notion of gendering as a culture
that is discussed above. Although, sounding gender in the context of music can be considered as subjective,
however, the signication of music and the meanings it can constitute has always been in subjective, and the
exploration of extending the possibility of music to signify gendering should be allowed as a possibility of
illustrating the universality of music to transcend any form of particularity.
Beauvoir, S. D. 2011. The second sex. New York: Vintage Books.
Bigwood, C. 1998. Renaturalizing the body (with the help of Merleau-Ponty). In Body and esh: A philosophical reader, ed.
D. Welton, 99–114. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.
Bordo, S. 1998. "Material Girl": The eacements of postmodern culture. In Body and esh: A philosophical reader, ed. D.
Welton, 45–59. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.
Wacana Seni Journal of Arts Discourse. Jil./Vol.18(Supp.1). 2019
Butler, J. 2011. Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of "sex" (1993 ed.). New York: Routledge.
. Gender trouble. London: Routledge.
. 1989. Foucault and the paradox of bodily inscriptions. The Journal of Philosophy 86(11): 601–607. https://doi.
Collins, P. H. 2010. Assume the position: The changing contours of sexual violence. In The body reader: Essential social
and cultural readings, eds. L. J. Moore and M. Kosut, 80–107. New York: New York University Press.
Dias, K. 2010. The Ana sanctuary: Women's pro-anorexic narratives in cyberspace. In The body reader: Essential social and
cultural readings, eds. L. J. Moore and M. Kosut, 399–412. New York: New York University Press.
. 2010a. Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In The Foucault reader, ed. P. Rabinow, 76–100 (1984 ed.). New York:
Foucault, M. 2010b. Docile bodies. In The Foucault reader, ed. P. Rabinow, 179–187 (1984 ed.). New York: Vintage Books.
Frank, A. 2010. The body's problems with illness. In The body reader: Essential social and cultural readings, eds. L. J.
Moore and M. Kosut, 31–47. New York: New York University Press.
Harré, R. 1998. Man and woman. In Body and esh: A philosophical reader, ed. D. Welton, 11–25. Massachusetts, USA:
Hekman, S. 1998. Material bodies. In Body and esh: A philosophical reader, ed. D. Welton, 61–70. Massachusetts, USA:
Kosut, M. 2010. Extreme bodies/extreme culture. In The body reader: Essential social and cultural readings, eds. L. J.
Moore and M. Kosut, 184–199. New York: New York University Press.
Kroll-Smith, S. and Floyd Jr., H. H. 2010. Chemically reactive bodies, knowledge, and society. In The body reader: Essential
social and cultural readings, eds. L. J. Moore and M. Kosut, 124–140. New York: New York University Press.
McWhorter, L. 1989. Culture or nature? The function of the term "body" in the work of Michel Foucault. Journal of
Philosophy 86(11): 608–614. https://doi.org/10.5840/jphil198986118.
Morgan, K. P. 1998. Women and the knife: Cosmetic surgery and the colonization of women's bodies. In Body and esh: A
philosophical reader, ed. D. Welton, 325–347. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.
Oliver, K. 2004. The esh become word: The body in Kristeva's Theory. In The body: Classic and contemporary readings,
ed. D. Welton, 341–352 (1999 ed.). Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.
Plemons, E. 2010. Envisioning the body in relation: Finding sex, changing sex. In The body reader: Essential social and
cultural readings, eds. L. J. Moore and M. Kosut, 317–328. New York: New York University Press.
Sheets-Johnstone, M. 1998. Corporeal archetypes and power: Preliminary clarications and considerations of sex. In Body
and esh: A philosophical reader, ed. D. Welton, 149–179. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.
Waskul, D. D. 2010. The naked self: Being a body in televideo cybersex. In The body reader: Essential social and cultural
readings, eds. L. J. Moore and M. Kosut, 252–281. New York: New York University Press.
Young, I. 1998. Throwing like a girl. In Body and esh: A philosophical reader, ed. D. Welton, 259–273. Massachusetts: