The Maze of Gaze: The Color of Beauty in Transnational Indonesia

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What are the effects of transnational circulations of people, objects, and ideas on our understanding of skin color, as it intersects with and complicates other categories of identity such as race, gender, nationality, and sexuality, in a transnational context? This dissertation addresses this question by providing evidence for the ways in which meanings of skin color, as it intersects with race, gender, sexuality, and nationality, are constructed transnationally through people, objects, and ideas that travel across national boundaries from pre- to postcolonial Indonesia.

This dissertation uses "beauty" as an organizing trope to limit its analysis, ensuring analytical depth within each chapter. This analytical depth is further ensured by choosing specific sites of analysis to highlight particular historical periods and countries from which specific people, objects, and ideas travel. The sites I examine include Old Javanese adaptations of Indian epics (to understand the workings of "color" in precolonial times); beauty product advertisements that functioned as propaganda for Dutch and Japanese colonialism; skin-whitening ads published after 1998 in the Indonesian edition of American women's magazine Cosmopolitan; and an interpretive reading of the Buru Tetralogy novels (Bumi Manusia, Anak Semua Bangsa, Jejak Langkah, and Rumah Kaca) by Indonesia's best known author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Interviews with Indonesian women are also integrated in this dissertation.

This dissertation aims to help us understand the semiotics of skin color: 1) as a transnational construction; 2) as a signifier for constructing distinctions and justifying gender discrimination; 3) as it is signified by (rather than a signifier for) race, gender, sexuality, and nation; 4) as a site where women articulate their resistance to or complicity with dominant racial, color, and gender ideology; and 5) as a "boundary object" that perpetuates racial and gender hierarchy in a global context.