On outsiders & the abnormal

To be the other in a sea of “normal”

On outsiders & the abnormal

In deconstructing ideas of normalcy, one would find that underlying belief systems and structures are, in reality, social constructs are normalized as standard modes of thinking and acting. Normalcy is thus founded upon conforming to such fabricated boundaries and limits. Yet, the presupposition and delineation of “correct” forms of behavior also depicts the alternative as an aberration in the process of “othering”. The Other is an outsider, deemed abnormal for acting under unorthodox systems of logic. Whilst one would hesitate to elide the similarities and differences across the contexts of individual Southeast Asian countries, perhaps the close treatments of rejection towards the abnormal signals the prevalence of a unique Southeast Asian sentiment in following the status quo. Viet Vu’s The Ant Man and Yosep Anggi Noen’s Ballad of Blood and Two White Buckets are two shorts that explore the experience of the outsider in Vietnam and Indonesia respectively.

Image courtesy of The Ant Man, dir. Viet Vu (2018)

If the concept of a disease is an infectious condition, the act of infection points to one’s transformation into a figure astray from the norm, embodying signs of irregularity. Hence, the motif of the disease has a double meaning, marking characters out as purported oddities and also being a consequence for partaking in ostensibly abnormal practices. The individual is thus distinguished as the outsider via their diseased afflictions. Enter The Ant Man. Ants infest the gay protagonist’s body, crawling out from a solitary mole next to his nose. The protagonist constantly picks at his mole, attempting to kill every single ant that comes out. At the same time, the very same ants swarm over the remains of a leftover meal, ravaging at a half-eaten piece of meat in the same room. One might imagine the ants are doing the same to the protagonist’s inner body, eating away at his innards and soul. And yet, it is noticeable that none of the protagonist’s heterosexual friends are beset with such a condition. The homosexual man is diseased, bearing an abnormal condition. The heteronormative soul from birth is corrupted by the assault of “queer” thoughts, being eaten away by the unwelcome infestation of ants.  

Likewise if the cough is viewed as a symptom and precursor to a disease, the distress of the perennial cough suffered by the protagonists in Noen’s short almost seems to be a retributory consequence for the continued engagement in atypical practices. The short begins with suppressed coughs of the wife as the couple visits a farm to collect the blood of slaughtered cows. The leftover blood is not a precious commodity, being an unwanted waste product. The protagonist states: “People refuse to eat congealed blood”. Here, normative forms of behaviour are established, demarcating the consumption of blood as a freak practice. Yet, whilst signs like this point towards the preternatural nature of the practice, the couple persists, continuing to find, prepare and sell congealed blood. The cough that is derived from the continued perpetuation of perceived abnormalities thus seems to acts as a reprimand and punishment for their “deviance”. The irregular coughs limited to the wife in the beginning slowly increases as the film progresses, culminating in a crescendo of hard coughs as both characters simply cannot stop coughing heavily by the end of the film. What is ironic lies in the fact that the very substance that cures diseases is also the substance that perpetuates the symptom of another disease. The disease thus becomes a marker and penance for acting unconventionally.

Image courtesy of The Ant Man, dir. Viet Vu (2018)

The delineation of certain practices as “abnormal” also sees its access and freedoms being relegated to specific spaces. Spaces act as delimitations, containing the pervasiveness of these practices amongst the perpetrators, further isolating them as the Other. “The Ant Man” outlines the politics of cruising, where the gay protagonist seeks out unsuspecting spaces to search for hookups and casual sex. In one sequence, the protagonist sits by the pavement on a roadside bridge, waiting for and chatting to young men. Yet, if sexual activities amongst the same sex are legalized in Vietnam, why does the protagonist go to such spaces and through such lengths to fulfill a universal human desire to be loved? The necessity for homosexuals to carve out such spaces thus hint at the hidden, but present condemnation of homosexuals within the larger Vietnamese society.

Cruising is predicated on the idea that spaces are re-contextualized, taking on new codified meanings for homosexuals to meet. The preponderance of heterosexuality as the established norm thus allows heterosexuals to occupy any space without any implications. Public and private spaces, however, become hostile to homosexuals. Even the home as a private abode becomes an antagonistic space under the judgemental eyes of heteronormative-believing family members. The gay protagonist cannot even fulfill his sexual desires within the comfort of his home, needing to traverse through tombstones to have sex in a public toilet stall. This act is, however, also met with disgust by members of the public. No space thus exists for homosexuality whatsoever, demarcating homosexuality as the peculiar, strange and “queer”.  

Image courtesy of Ballad of Blood and Two White Buckets, dir. Yosep Anggi Noen (2018)

Meanwhile, the practice of selling congealed blood for consumption in Noen’s short yields no rewards, being subjugated to a subhuman space. The sale of the product happens by the streets, not fit for display at a spanking new restaurant. Despite going through all the trouble of collecting the blood of dead cattle, cooking it at the risk of their health and standing all day by the roadside to sell it, only one single customer stops to buy it.  The practice is moreover perceived by the customer as an atypical solution for his daughter’s sickness, being acknowledged as something only turned to in extraordinary circumstances.

People otherwise deign to consume it. Instead, the protagonist has to plead with a farmer to buy it for his pigs. The pigs, (unlike people) devour the congealed blood, swarming over and gobbling it up as if it were a heavenly treat. If one presupposes humans to be at the very top of the chain of beings, the consignment of the practice to a space inhabited by animals highlights its purported abnormalness, being something beneath human beings. The consumption of congealed blood by the couple, something only fit for the feral mouths of pigs (that are themselves food for other humans), thus further subjugates them to a space and status of subhuman.

It’s funny how society upholds notions of individuality, calling for one to stand out in a goal founded upon being someone different.  And yet, some differences are celebrated more than others. The subversion of some status quos are welcomed while others are quickly denounced. Viet Vu’s and Noen’s shorts raise this dilemma, fleshing out the complicity extant hierarchy of standards have in the process of ordering and othering. The main characters are pushed to the subaltern, struggling to live normally in being appraised as the abnormal. And yet, the earnestness and humanness of the character’s intentions questions the purported importance of such standards. The protagonist in Viet Vu’s short simply wants to be allowed to love freely whilst both characters in Noen’s short sincerely wish to eke out a living. Amidst all these trivial differences, we are all human after all.