Are you a pop musician planning to perform in Malaysia? Better check your midriff: The country has lately taken a dim view of female performers who favor revealing outfits. Since 2005, when Malaysia's Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage instituted a dress code for performers, women have been required to cover up from clavicle to knee in order to take the stage. (Performance rules also prohibit artists from jumping, shouting, using profanity, throwing objects into the crowd, and hugging or kissing audience members or other performers.) R&B star Beyoncé Knowles made headlines today when she pulled out of a planned show in Kuala Lumpur after protests from local Muslim groups, reportedly because she refused to comply with the dress code.
Other performers have reacted differently. The Pussycat Dolls went ahead with their trademark tangle-of-limbs act in 2006; they were censured by the Malaysian government for "sexually suggestive" behavior, and the concert organizers were fined. In August, Gwen Stefani went the other way, making what she called a "major sacrifice" by adding extra jackets and leotards to her wardrobe to comply with the dress code.
The performers' varied responses to Malaysian rules reveal the variance of opinion on this issue; for some, Stefani's concession to local requirements was the appropriate response -- after all, these are Malaysia's rules, and no one is forcing her to visit the country. Others argued that Stefani should have resisted the rule on principle; right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin cracked, "So much for that independent, strong female image she has cultivated." (Not that Malkin's position on female flesh is entirely consistent; blogger TBogg pointed out that Malkin is normally all about covering up but appears to make an exception when exposed flesh is likely to offend conservative Muslims.)
Funnily enough, Salon published an article last year titled "Beyoncé Knowles, Freedom Fighter," which argued that performers like Beyoncé, with their sexy outfits and dance moves, "will do to Islamic fundamentalism what rock 'n' roll did to Stalinism." No amount of church or state repression can contain the spread of permissive Western culture, or so the argument goes; by booty-popping with abandon, then, Beyoncé is fighting fundamentalism.
It's tough to know whether following or flouting the rules is the best way for a performer to make an impact in Malaysia -- or whether American pop stars should obligate themselves to make any specific impact on other cultures at all. But it's interesting to note that, as is so often the case, the female body is the field on which this argument is playing out. (The controversial rapper Akon performed in Malaysia earlier this year, and while he was fully clothed, it seems a little inconsistent that the gyrating and lyrics to "Smack That" weren't accused of corrupting the country's youth, as a female performer showing a flash of navel almost certainly would be.)
Debate aside, Beyoncé's tour rolls on; she'll perform on Malaysia's tour date in Jakarta, Indonesia. And actually, looking at her other upcoming tour dates, in locations like Addis Ababa, Istanbul and Kluj, Romania, I'm a little surprised that Malaysia was the only country to take issue with her sexy garb. I'm still not sold on the notion of Beyoncé fighting for women's rights and freedom of expression, one skimpy outfit at a time -- but picturing audiences around the world singing along to "Irreplaceable" puts a smile on my face just the same.