The Orientalist Gaze in Agnez Mo’s American Persona

Tuesday, 31 October 2017 - 10:18:18 WIB
By : Ayunda Nurvitasari | Category: Culture - 8677 hits
Pimpin’ hard, it’s an art.

Here comes Agnez Mo, gliding her way on the terrace of a beachfront mansion in a body-hugging tube top and black lacy tights. A magnificent batik cape is draped on her shoulder and an absurdly huge and Asian-looking piece balanced on her head, as she affects the look of “sexy jaded”. A dagger in her hand and a token hot shirtless guy in tow, she sings of money, sex and lace, and not caring about what people say (if one has to make some sense of the song lyrics).

In case you’ve been holed up in a cave somewhere, Agnez Mo is the latest incarnation of Agnes Monica, the former child celebrity, actress, singer, and generally a household name for many Indonesians. Agnez Mo is the persona she has settled into in recent years when she introduced herself to the American audience. This particular music video of the song “Long As I Get Paid” has been watched 16 million times on YouTube since it was released last month, and it has received both praises an criticism.

Born in the early 90s, I grew up watching “Agnes Monica” as a presenter in “Tralala Trilili” kids music program and then as the vibrant and lively characters in various family series, Mr. Hologram and Lupus Milenia. My family and I also loved watching her drama, Pernikahan Dini, in which she played a teenage girl who has to get married because of unplanned pregnancy, as well as dozens of roles in TV shows and films afterwards. Her acting career went hand in hand with her music career. She released her first album when she was just six, five albums followed, plus two international English-speaking ones: the self-titled album and the one released a couple weeks ago, X.

But the evolution path of Agnez Mo has not always been a smooth one. Unlike that other Indonesian-born artist Anggun (nee Anggun Cipta Sasmi), whose international career, generally inspired respect, Agnez Mo has been as divisive a pop-culture figure in Indonesia as, say, Taylor Swift. It seems you either love her or hate her.

And those that remain in between may have mixed feelings about the way she presents herself to the American audience. For one the overt sexuality of her music video masks her true potential.

A comment under username *Mrs. Voldemort* in Long As I Get Paid music video encapsulated the sentiment: “I love Agnez Mo, but I got to [sic] admit her English language songs weren’t as great as her Indonesian work. I would completely forget about this song in the next 5 minutes, unlike her Indonesian songs that stuck in my head for years! The only good thing here is the beautiful fabrics/dresses. I hope she sings more instead of just [doing] sexualized beats like this, this is so American. (...)Agnez Mo has amazing vocal, technique, and range! But [no] thanks to this ‘Nicki Minaj level’ music, people outside of Indonesia didn’t know that yet(...)”.

Overt sexuality may be the American way of shedding off one’s child stars’ persona, like what happened with Christina Aguilera, Lindsay Lohan, or Miley Cyrus. Remember when Miley tried to grow out of Hannah Montana? This article explains how Miley as a former child star felt the need to “assert the control she lacked for years”, the control to define her own identity, which isn’t attached to the fictional character she had played. From good girl Hannah Montana, she became wild-child Miley: shaved head, provocative dresses, sexual gestures.

Is this the case with Agnez too?

Most possibly not. For one, since her childhood star days, the 31 year old has continued to invent and reinvent her public self in different stages of her life. Having grown out of her child singer persona, she became an energetic teenage actress slash singer slash dancer. She then transformed into a top-chart Asian pop diva and a judge in talent shows. In short, she is far removed from that awkward post-adolescence identity-crisis phase.

But whoever she has been at the moment, one trait is always expected of her by her Indonesian fans, and that is modesty. Physically attractive and fit though she always has been, Agnez was never known for exploiting her sexuality. Instead of a party animal, those who work with her credit her for being a consummate and driven artist. She always knows what she wants, just ask her designer Anne Avantie and her stylist Rose Sims.

Ever the Miss Perfectionist, Agnez told Vogue recently, “I’m my own biggest critic. I want things to be perfect. It’s not about arrogance – it’s about realizing that I’m evolving and I’m moving in the right direction.”

Still, she appears to have been bothered by the Indonesian audience criticism of her big ambition, so much that she felt the need to defend herself from the allegations of being “arrogant”, “rude” and “conceited” in haters-dissing songs like “Long as I Get Paid”.  

If the album is really her attempt to break away from those “noises”, being the opposite of modest is what she finally believed as “her most honest and authentic self.” But what if this honest and authentic self comes with a set of problems?

The Orientalist Gaze

In the cutaway shots in her music videos “Coke Bottle” and “Long As I Get Paid”, Agnez gets steamy with African American guys and doing lap dance and strip dance for them.

The many sexually suggestive shots and the dominatrix role she plays in “Long As I Get Paid.” In short Agnez’ music videos shows merely follow the sex-sell formula that prevails in the RnB and hip-hop scene. Her MVs affirms the presence of male gaze, which explicitly depicts women as visual objects for male sexual pleasure or male spectators.

But even more cringe-inducing is the blatant orientalism of the music videos, particularly in “Long as I Get Paid”. Coined by literary theorist and journalist Edward W. Said, orientalism refers to the way of seeing or imagining that exaggerates or distorts the perception of “the East” (Middle East, Asia) in comparison to “the West” (Europe and the U.S.). Usually it involves perceiving the culture or elements coming from “the East” as exotic, mysterious, inferior, or sometimes dangerous, and how it totally differs from the civilized “West”. Orientalism acknowledged how the depiction of women of “the East”, presented in novels, epics, and paintings, have been eroticized and exoticized for the pleasure of “the West” male voyeur.

In the MV, Agnez’s glamorized look involved a majestic batik costume that accentuates her curves and cleavage with a thick cape that she gracefully drags in slow motion. In an interview she said she only intended to “combine the modern and the traditional.” She wanted to make batik less boring”, she claimed.

I’m afraid it’s not that simple, though. Batik may have become synonymous with modern esthetic when it comes to fashion design today, but what Agnez does with batik removes it so far out of the context and uses it as a tool of to exaggerate exoticism, eroticism and that Asian mystery. The way she represents her image goes back to building an unrealistic fantasy of how exotic Asian women are for Western male pleasure.

This doesn’t mean that she has lost a significant chunk of her fans, however. Many have approved her ways of presenting herself to the U.S. audience and appreciate her bringing batik along into the scene. Others might say she could’ve chosen a different self-image. They pointed out that Malaysian RnB singer-songwriter Yuna could exist in the international RnB scene and stick to her original style. But, then again, of course, Agnez aims for the stars, and so she should.

With her drive and her talent, it’s obvious Agnez is not one to quit. She will continue to explore herself in ways that will probably invite more “noises” and judgment. She might just get away with hypersexualized and orientalist approaches this time. But let’s hope she won’t one day show up with a dreadlock or commit some cultural appropriating gaffe merely to prove her street cred.

*Credits: Photo is retrieved from Long as I Get Paid music video

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Writer Profile
Ayunda Nurvitasari, Reporter/Social Media Manager
Ayunda is interested in the intersection of pop culture, media, and gender issues. She's currently pursuing a master's in Cultural Studies department, University of Indonesia. She's been into Lana Del Rey, speculative fiction, and BoJack Horseman series. Her own social media sites, however, are quite uneventful, but feel free to say hi: facebooktwitter.
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COMMENTS
Hawari | 31 October 2017 | 14:21:43 WIB
What about the writer more focus on the fact that Agnez Mo CLEARLY hold a knife on her hand, ready to stab anyone who gets in her way, not excluding men. Isn't it some kind of women empowerment those so-called feminists have been craved for? But nevermind, bad story sells more than the good one, even for Magdalene.
Hawari | 31 October 2017 | 14:22:21 WIB
You know the sad thing is, you won't find any article on Magdalene about Rich Chigga's offensive jokes and problematic stage name, or criticism towards Eminem's sudden SJW freestyle rap (although we know he wrote lyrics about punching women and killing gays).

Remember that time when Natalia Kills bullied an X Factor contestant on national TV and then she's bullied by the entire world and lost her career although there's this probability that it's only staged because it's a TV show?

But remember that time when Kanye bullied Taylor Swift but people defend him and he still has his success career til now? Even Taylor got blamed and shamed for starting the feuds with the Kanye and Kardashians.

This proves to me more that women will always recieve harsher criticism than men, even when they do not do bad things (intentionally). But men can always get away with everything and still have success in their life.
andore | 31 October 2017 | 19:08:14 WIB
such a great writing!
Hawari | 01 November 2017 | 05:03:38 WIB
And no, Agnez did not do strip dance and lap dance. She did not remove clothes or dance in his lap. Stop exagarating. Cause that's what you're doing.

Oh and don't you think Yuna does cultural apropriation to Arab's culture where she uses hijab but in less modest way?

Oh and if Ahmad Tohari translates his novel Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, does it make him an arientalist? That's stupid.

(Both last paragraphs are sarcasm)
faz | 01 November 2017 | 19:05:44 WIB
I find it intriguing despite the obviously huge gay following that she has and her defiant, no-fucks-given, as-long-as-I-get-paid attitude, she has never spoken about LGBT rights, ever. It's very ironic because YOU WOULD THINK someone like her would speak up on these things, considering her fanbase. I don't like constantly comparing her to Anggun but she has spoken on "controversial" issues like LGBTQ rights and the abolishment of death penalty many times, even when her audience is a whole lot more diverse (and actually borders on the conservatist tip) and whilst there are gay people among her fans, many of them are not exactly out (I've hung around other gay fans of hers, so I know!), there are major endorsement deals at stake for her to speak up the way that she has, but she speaks up anyway. It's baffling, really.
faz | 01 November 2017 | 19:06:57 WIB
Let's face it, the only reason she's doing these things is because she has virtually no audience outside of Indonesia (or maybe Malaysia and Singapore) and literally nobody outside of her fanbase gives a rat's ass about her wearing a knock-off version of batik all the while perpetuating exoticism. Also let's not forget a couple of years ago when she was nominated for the Best Asia & Pacific Act category at the MTV Europe Music Awards, a national TV station aired an hour-long TV special so people would vote for her because apparently "vote for Agnes, vote for Indonesia." I thought, fuck that shit and I voted for Sia instead, who was also in that category.
Mayq | 01 November 2017 | 21:03:51 WIB
@faz Hear, hear.
teslie | 02 November 2017 | 09:59:57 WIB
@Hawari You seriously don't understand what's categorized as strip/lap dance and what's the meaning of cultural appropriation, do you? smh. AgnezMo deserves better educated fans. You know what, just don't force yourself to understand Orientalism. Faz'z arguments are too strong for you to handle.
Hawari | 02 November 2017 | 11:26:13 WIB
Haha seriously Faz? I unfriended you to avoid your self-righteous opinions, because I find it overwhelming and tiring being friend with you. I have to agree to almost all the things you say, and even spend hours and days to understand Björk's music just to get along with you. But I'm tired of your opinions that I always have to agree with, but now you show up here too. I can't.

And also it's Agnez's right not to speak up about the political stuff. She's a frikkin entertainer, not some politician. Her job is just entertaining people and make some art. It's obvious that your opinion is very biased, remembering all the posts that criticize Agnez in many ways. And not her fault if a national TV aired that stuff, it's Indonesian people that has too many pride to support her. I just support her as an artist.

Hawari | 02 November 2017 | 11:27:19 WIB
And from my research that day I also know that Björk once attacked a journalist at an airport. The point is if you sneeze for dirts, you'll find it everywhere, at any person. And this article seems to do it, just like what I did few years back when I said that Frozen is a dangerous homosexual agenda and hundreds of people actually believe it. I'm just gonna stop my rant now and just give the link to my counter argument about this article.

https://www.kompasiana.com/irawanharun9/59f95f8498 182765e95d5e02/tak-ada-masalah-dengan-videoklip-agnez-mo- persepsi-kita-saja-yang-ngeres
Hawari | 02 November 2017 | 11:34:59 WIB
I don’t believe in cultural appropriation and I think it's stupid and exaggareting stuff that doesn't exist. I'm not an SJW now, I quit that toxic environment, they always bring people down with their opinions and often public shamed people. You guys are a bunch of middle class hypocrite who only read theories but don't know what real life is. You can shove your theories up your throat I don't care.
Hawari | 02 November 2017 | 12:45:59 WIB
And so you know Faz, Anggun is a WNA, so it's easy for her to be outspoken about minority rights. She's a citizen of a country where you won't be persecuted for being gay. Remember what happened to Sherina when she spoke about marriage equality? You surely know. Now she's never been outspoken again. So you're gonna go after her too?

Agnez is same like Sherina, still a citizen of Indonesia and things can get chaotic if she's recklessly outspoken. Please understand this.

And @teslie, maybe I'm wrong, I didn't know the definition of lap dance but surely Agnez didn't do any strip dance in that video because she didn't remove her clothes while dancing. Yeah, check Oxfors dictionary. And I admit that I was wrong because I'm not a self-righteous person.

And also, you really do prefer an argument where the writer used words such s*** and f-word? That just showed me what kind of people you really are.
Judas | 03 November 2017 | 21:12:25 WIB
Hawari's spelling is too painful to read.

Call it a typo, but the letter "a" is too distant from the letter "o" in the qwerty keyboard.
And (s)he talks about orientalism as arientalism.
Shows what kind of person (s)he really is.
Judas | 03 November 2017 | 21:14:07 WIB
Exaggareting.
Oxfors.
Ibu | 03 November 2017 | 21:24:38 WIB
"And I admit that I was wrong because I'm not a self-righteous person"

THE IRONY
Sari | 03 November 2017 | 22:36:53 WIB
Aside from gender and sexuality related opinion, I agree that "Long As I Get Paid" isn't one of her best performances. She has more potentials, which she didn't explore in that particular song, unfortulately.
Sari | 03 November 2017 | 22:37:43 WIB
Aside from gender and sexuality related opinion, I agree that "Long As I Get Paid" isn't one of her best performances. She has more potentials, which she didn't explore in that particular song, unfortunately.
Hawari | 06 November 2017 | 08:30:42 WIB
You know that thing when you can not say anything because you do not have any solid argument so you criticize the grammar. Yeah, Hitler approved that. 😂

Hmm, I really like how Sari criticize agnez in a humbled tone. If only Ayunda dkk prefered more humbled tone in their writings, I'm sure they won't get these massive backlashes from Agnez's fans. Thank you, Sari, for your constructive criticism, I truly appreciate it. 😊
Saga | 06 November 2017 | 10:21:12 WIB
LOL, and ayunda already discussed what sari mentioned too by quoting a looong comment from agnez's youtube music video. No matter how she expresses it "humble" or whatever you call it, I'm sure those barbaric ppl will still attack. Just google Raisa get attacked by NIC, it was just bcoz Raisa won an award and Agnez didn't. Hell even Agnez got bullied too for giving false hope to her fans in her tweets. It was all over the internet. It's not a shocker that her fans r some shithead. I'm sure the writer is aware of that too when she wrote this.
Sissassy | 14 November 2017 | 11:51:58 WIB
Have you hear AgnezMo’s X whole album? And not just going all over the place with just one video. Her album is great. The comment on YouTube that said “will forget this song in 5 minutes” definitely not listen this song for like 3 times. It stucked in your head! I can’t stop humming it. We in Indonesia are exposed to k-pop too much lately, and I believe some of us already forgot how western music was sounds like. AgnezMo’s X sounds like Nicki Minaj, yes! But, Nicki Minaj is one of the greatest female rapper in America. And if AgnezMo could reach fame like Nicki with music that sounds like Nicki, why not? Australia have Iggy Azalea, it’s time for Indonesia to have a representative in America music scene













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