Minahs and Minority Celebrity.

I have been working on this article since 2016 and it is finally ready to meet the world in Celebrity Studies. It studies YouTube parody Influencers as feminist and anti-racist commentary.

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Read the paper here. If you do not have institutional access and would like a copy, please get in touch via email, Twitter, or Instagram.

Abidin, Crystal. 2019. “Minahs and Minority Celebrity: Parody YouTube Influencers and Minority Politics in Singapore.” Celebrity Studies (Online first) DOI: 10.1080/19392397.2019.1698816 <Link>

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It considers how the decade-long career of Singaporean YouTube Influencers MunahHirziOfficial has produced Beyoncé/Minaj/Grande parody videos to reclaim the trope of the ‘minah‘ as socio-political commentary on racism, religiosity, and sexuality in Singapore.

The paper also draws on Deleuze et al. to introduce the concept of ‘minority celebrity‘, which is ‘the fame and recognition founded on commodifying and representing a usually marginalised and stigmatised demographic of society, built upon the validation and celebration of minoritarian values, with the political agenda of making public and critiquing the systemic and personal challenges experienced by the minority group in everyday life’.

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Here are some excerpts:

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“Firstly, the genderfluid and drag back-up dancers in the string of minah music parody videos comprise men, women, transgender persons, and androgynous persons (Figure 1). This is significant given that LGBT and queer people are still marginalised in Singapore (Yue and Zubillaga-Pow 2012). They are usually led by Andreas Chua who identifies as ‘An Androgynous gay Choreographer and Dancer from Singapore’ (Starnow 2017), and appears in the videos with long straight hair in feminine attire. The strong and consistent presence of these genderfluid dancers as a regular and non-descript backdrop is significant when situated within the larger Influencer industry in Singapore: The YouTube industry in Singapore is dominated by Chinese Influencers, many of whom occasionally perform in gender-bending, queer, or drag characters as mere comic relief or the closing punchline. They are usually straight Chinese men dressing up in drag to parody motherly figures and deliberately ugly subpar girlfriends, and in flamboyant men’s wear to parody the gay stereotype of an effeminate man.” (Abidin 2019: 5-6).

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“Secondly, the Malay icons who cameo in the minah music parody videos are also marginalised, as they seldom conform to the stereotype of a conservative, traditional, and sanitised Malay Muslim. The recurring cameos across MHO’s body of videos over the years often carry ‘extratextual connotations’ (Mathijs 2013, p. 146) with reference to the social issues and cultural causes they champion in their capacity as individuals in Singapore society, and their inclusion ‘invit[es] the viewer to ponder [the] tangential implications’ (Mathijs 2013, p. 146) of their inclusion in the MHO cineverse. More critically, MHO’s inclusion of these cameo actors often come closely after the latter’s individual encounters with public spotlight, and thus also serves to lend them ‘screen-time’ (Mathijs 2013, p. 146) to amplify their ethical and political stance on a variety of issues. One recurring cameo is Malay Muslim male artist Muhammad Khairul Ikhwan who in the earlier years of MHO cameos in androgynous and drag fashion (MunahHirziOfficial 2016a). Journalists who have written features on Khairul’s art and identity politics recall that his subversive self-inscriptions and ‘unabashed love for dolling himself up’ in an otherwise largely conservative segment of minority society was ‘a bid to express himself and inspire others’ (Baharudin and Yusoff 2016). In September 2015, Khairul was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer and a tumour in his brain, but outlived his prognosis and continued to publicly document his artistic endeavours and struggles with his illness (HCA 2016). In the later MHO videos, he also removes his drag wig to unveil hair loss as an act of symbolic resistance against the taboo of death in public fora (MunahHirziOfficial 2016d). He passed away in August 2016.” (Abidin 2019: 6)

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“Such a strategy of parody relies on presenting reality as ‘contrary to fact’, where ‘the entire subject is treated in a contradictory manner’ such that the Chinese Singaporeans who are usually ‘elevated’ become ‘debased’ in this alternative reality, and the Malay Singaporeans who are usually prejudiced are ‘elevated’ (Kreuz and Roberts 2009, p. 104). Although this instance of discrimination towards Malays was most prominently featured in the minah music parody videos, MHO’s representational politics draws on a longer history of Malay prejudice in Singapore, referencing an array of viral controversies. These include racist social media comments disparaging Malay weddings (Yahoo! Newsroom 2012), discriminatory hiring practices at a local bakery chain (Ho and Wei 2016), and ‘no Malay’ specifications in property rental advertisements (Chandran and Loh 2017). A 2017 survey on race relations by the Institute of Policy Studies in partnership with Channel News Asia similarly reports that minority raced citizens to experience and perceive more instances of racism than the dominant population of Singaporean Chinese (Philomin 2016). In reference to these incidents, MHO featured more satirical interactions between Chinese clients and Malay Influencers, to demonstrate the implicit racism in their industry and in Singapore at large.” (Abidin 2019: 9-10).

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“Where their Chinese counterparts in the Influencer industry seem to have the leeway to establish their own identities and celebrity persona, MHO are subjected to a double policing of their self-presentations, first by their own racial and religious community for compliance to conservatism, and second by Singapore society at large who expect minority persons to be self-contained and sanitised within their own social groups. Yet, MHO embeds their activist messages in their minah music parody videos, wherein support and awareness building are integrated into a complex system of racial and ethnic, religious, gendered and sexual, and Influencer celebrity literacies.

For all the intellectual and aesthetic labour in which MHO engage to capture their viewers, the bulk of their parody content references concerns that often specifically speak mostly to the (intersectional) minority social groups in Singapore. But their impact on political commentary and social issues should not be discounted. While research on celebrity advocacy has found that even ‘the most famous celebrities’ in the mainstream entertainment industry struggle to achieve ‘sustained attention’ from the mass media to publicise their advocacy causes (Thrall et al. 2008, p. 364), YouTube Influencers like MHO rely on the longtail of social media shares, responses, and at times even outrage to spotlight attention on the social issues they champion. And while their parody videos require a threshold of knowledge on popular culture and social issues, their ‘narrowcasting’ has been able to ‘mobiliz[e] small groups of motivated people’ (Thrall et al. 2008, p. 364) to share their works as political commentary.” (Abidin 2019: 15)

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“Further, for their reflexive humour to take root, represent intersectional minority identities, and interrogate inequalities from everyday microaggressions to institutional racism, MHO tailor their creative content to speak to viewers in parallel literacies. At any given time, MHO’s parody content offers viewers three terrains to manoeuvre: Firstly, for (Malay Muslim) viewers who are attuned to the intersectional minority racial, religious, sexuality, and class politics in Singapore, MHO capitalise on the insider–outsider dichotomy by embedding in-group jokes and references through language and visual symbolism to build cohesion, solidarity, and sociality. Secondly, for (Singaporean) viewers who are attuned only to the soft-authoritarian culture of Singapore politics, MHO mobilise shared commiseration by poking fun at the state in a mix of ambiguous and subversive humour and genuine disgruntlement. Finally, for the YouTube viewers who casually consume social media content for leisure, MHO borrows from global icons and elements in popular culture and embed these signs into their videos akin to Easter Eggs that global audiences may find relatable. As Influencers, parody performers, intersectional minority advocates, and intersectional minority persons themselves, MHO have imbued layers of personal politics and popular publics into their body of work, proving that they have made the most and the best of their minority celebrity over their decade-long career.” (Abidin 2019: 15-16).

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Happy reading!

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