The following is a lecture about Indonesian masculinities and male sex work to accompany the film screening of Quickie Express by Dimas Djayadinigrat that I delivered for my class Sex and the City in Southeast Asian Cinema. Reading it through once again, I found to be rather scrappy and also, please pardon the occasional chatty style – this was meant to be delivered verbally rather than read. Despite the rough edges, there are some themes of male sexual humiliation in physical comedy that remains unstudied and therefore stands as a large uncharted landscape few scholars of gender in film studies choose to venture:
Talking about Quickie Express brings us to various discursive directions; masculinities in recent Indonesian cinema, the notion of masculinity in crisis, representations of male sex workers or gigolos in films, and masculinity as spectacle.
Quickie Express plays on a parody of both traditional masculinity and sexuality. It suggests that working in the sex industry is quite humiliating for a man as it involves being subjected to sexual servitude for an array of female clientele made up of overweight women, bondage fetishist, elderly women who are made to look not only comedic and physically unattractive but more crucially to personify grotesque forms of female sexuality. Or rather female sexuality as grotesque. But what Quickie Express also shows is that male prostitution also generates unexpected benefits – a high end lifestyle and romance.
This brings us to a discussion about representations of the male sex worker, the comedic element that mitigates against the anxiety and potential humiliation of masculinity, and the construction of men as objects of erotic desire – all of which I will discuss in great detail.
What is interesting about Quickie Express is that it adds an unusual dimension to the portrayals of masculinities in the post-Suharto era. It presents men as sex objects who struggle as seducers of women. It seems to feature the failure of men and sexual humiliation in a situation where gender roles are reversed: women are the ones who are financially independent and powerful, they are also the active agents of their sexuality, they call the shots because they can.
The three men – Piktor, Marley, and Jojo (shown above) are not even adequate as heterosexual masculine men – that they need instructions on how to be sexually literate through their very camp male instructor who exhibits multiple paradoxes of masculinity – being middle-aged and having a paunch, the string vest, the awkward rather than graceful movement around the pole, but being an expert of female sexuality, dance, and high brow social etiquette.
If you have seen The Full Monty, you will remember the scene in which the men are made to watch Flashdance to learn how to dance. Flashdance is of course an important film that combines the masculine profession of the central female character who is a welder at a steel mill and the predominantly feminine world of dance. So we have two films that uses women/feminine men who serve as instructors in sexual masculine performance whether on stage, or in bed.
A display of non-traditional, non-normative, inadequate, or buffoon masculinities will guide us into a better understanding that masculinity is not a stable or homogeneous category of gender. In the work of Raewyn Connell, masculinity is broken up into four forms: hegemonic, complicit, marginalised, and subordinated masculinities. Today we’ll be focusing on marginalised and subordinated masculinity which we see plenty of in Quickie Express in contrast to hegemonic or dominant masculinity.
Throughout the New Order period, the dominant paradigm of masculinity was defined in familial terms; the man as father and leader of the household, and by extension the nation. Hence, the ideal Indonesian man was defined through heterosexual, monogamous marriage and having a family, preferably with biological children.
But changes in the socio-political and religious mood occurring during Reformasi – the period shortly after Suharto’s resignation – meant that men and masculinities were shifting as well. During this period hegemonic or idealised masculinity becomes increasingly Islamicised. The ability to display or perform their Muslim masculinity through dress, speech, consumption, who they marry, how many women they marry is played out in the public arena as an exemplary form of masculinity. But there is another side of masculinity played out in Indonesian film that we should be more interested in – the disempowered masculinity, the crisis of masculinity.
Masculinity in crisis
Masculinity in crisis is defined as a situation in which heterosexual men experience a sense of frustration, loss, and tension in the face of female empowerment in the public sphere, a loss in a sense of a traditional masculinity, and the threat posed by male homosexuality who are able to look and be just as masculine as straight men.
The crisis therefore rests on the popular question of “What does it take to be a “real” man?” particularly if for most people “real” means cissexual as opposed to transsexual or transgender and straight as opposed to gay man, gainfully employed as opposed to jobless or poor. In Indonesia, Marshal Clark describes the masculinity in crisis which occurs during the Asian economic crisis of 1997, in which many men experienced the double humiliation of losing their jobs and roles as breadwinner of the household.
For Marshal Clark, the Indonesian crisis of masculinity is enacted in post-Suharto films in which gangsters and various other versions of violent men populate the screen, where they overpower the authorities and other weaker members of society. On a more alarming note, he also says that there are more misandrist portrayals of men during this period, as defined as weak, abusive, and socially alienated young men in many films by both female and male film directors. Of course, the weakness and negativity of these portrayals are debatable, as we shall discuss later in our tutorial using Quickie Express as our talking point.
Buffoon men, gigolos, marginalised / subordinated masculinities at the centre
Quckie Express joins the few comedy films and television series about gigolos or men in the sex industry like Deuce Bigelow, The Full Monty, and the American comedy drama Hung. Central to the representation of men in these films and television series is the non-traditional, less than adequate men who face the threat of economic poverty, shame and stigmatisation, the clandestine double life they lead due to the nature of their profession.
If we were to describe a type of masculinity in Quickie Express based on the continuum of masculinities introduced by Raewyn Connell, these men would be categorised in the marginalised and subordinated masculinities. Marginalised because of he portrayal of men such as the Arab pimp and the Dutch Jan Pieter Gunarto.
But they are also examples of subordinated masculinity because of their effeminacy and homosexuality. The gigolos on the other hand traverse across the various forms of masculinities but never quite make it to hegemonic masculinity. They are definitely buffoon men.
Interestingly, at multiple points of the film we find several sequences that threaten the masculinity of an already disempowered masculinity even more; for example, the three men talk about boosting their virility using a tonic from Saudi Arabia and express an implicit fear of impotence, Marley’s small penis that eventually becomes bitten off by a fish and eaten by a hospital personnel.
Key to depictions of men as sex objects is the comedic element to neutralise the anxiety of the male gaze. Now, the male gaze was developed by as a psychoanalytic term by Jacques Lacan to describe the anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed. In feminist film theory, the gaze was further developed by Laura Mulvey in her seminal essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema in which she says that the audience is put into the perspective of a heterosexual man. How the camera lingers on the women’s body more than it does on a man’s body in an erotically-charged way suggests this.
I’d like to add on Mulvey’s point that the male gaze occurs also he production of images in television and more particularly in magazine covers, advertising, and fashion photography. Women’s bodies are generally shown as passive objects of desire to be visually consumed by the audience who is presumed to be heterosexual and male. The male gaze suggests that there is a power asymmetry coded in how we look at images of women in film. The male gaze holds water if we know for certain most film directors are indeed straight and male, as for most members of the film industry, and the fact that when sex sells, it means women’s bodies sell.
But when men’s bodies project erotic visual cues, such as a bare chest, a come hither look at the audience, they are countered by traditional masculine signifiers usually through engaging in some form of activity, holding a prop that will reinforce their masculinity. In the case of visual close-ups on men, their faces should express fear, anger, or aggression. Or look away, to not make eye contact with the presumably straight male audience and incite homoerotic passion. The male gaze is implicitly suggests that visual-making is largely homophobic and fears the potential sexy images of men will unsettle the male gaze.
There are exceptions of course, but the exceptions tend to generate discomfort, criticisms, and anger from many people. For example, Sylvester Stallone paying homage to Rodin’s The Thinker on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1999, or the silliness / obscenity of Sacha Baron-Cohen on the cover of GQ, the absurdity of men in pin-up poses.
One the biggest flaws of Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze is the assumption that female viewers also have the male gaze in that they look through a heterosexual and masculinsed lens. This anticipated the concept of the female gaze that proposed that women as viewers have the agency to identify in a non-sexist way, in a way that does not objectify women. Also, the psychoanalytic paradigm in much of film theory has been challenged as severely limited; mainly because of its ahistorical approaches to desire and fear, its silence on the issue of race, class, and cultures of the audiences.
I think Quickie Express problematises the concept of the gaze through the portrayal of straight men as male prostitutes hence sex objects and its use of comedy.
The most common stereotype of the male prostitute is as a sexy but tragic figure. This stereotype reveals both a fascination with the male prostitute as a sexual object and sadness or disdain with his situation and life style. This stereotyped male hustler is often an under-aged or teen-age “street kid” or “runaway” forced to leave home because of his sexual orientation or because of sexual abuse. He is often portrayed as a drug addict or thief. The plotline frequently focuses on the crisis of leaving the trade or the street (“one last trick”), or on making enough money for an important use (a medical treatment, a gift). The climax often has one of two possible outcomes: the hustler either abandons the trade and re-integrates society, or he meets a tragic end.
While less frequent in cinema and novels, the male prostitute with exclusively female clients (the “gigolo” or “escort”) is generally depicted in a less tragic manner than the gay hustler (the gigolo is portrayed as older, athletic, well-dressed, etc.), and films like American Gigolo have done much to paint the character as a sophisticated seducer. This portrayal has also lead to cinematic satire
The element of comedy in Quickie Express alleviates the anxiety male audiences, again we’re still using the male gaze as a useful concept, may have about allusions to emasculation, feminisation of men, castration, and the construction of men as sex objects. Comedy allows viewers to accept and laugh characters as simply caricatures, reassuring that they are hyperboles and extreme and absurd representations of men in desperation. Comedy also dislocates the anxiety that straight male audiences may have with depictions of men as sex objects. Should the film be a serious investigation into the life of a male prostitute with many lingering shots of male bodies, we may have greater apprehension with the image.
Quickie Express joins a loosely termed genre in recent Indonesian cinema of the sex comedy, and more specifically joins a sub-genre of sex comedy that focuses on the men’s sexual insecurity, namely the focus on the penis. Other penis-oriented comedies include Namaku Dick (or my name is Dick) about a talking penis that turns a man’s life upside down, and XL about a man who is worried that small penis will disappoint a future wife.