Notes on power and the difficulties of theorising gender in Indonesian film-making

Talking about gender in Indonesian cinema is actually quite hard when you get down to establishing a sort of link between gender as an analytical construct and gender as understood in public discourse.

What was always frustrating, was that when one began to talk about gender in film, the conversation turns into a discussion about women in film; whether they are representations of or in terms of women’s roles in film production. Even though I make it a point to bring up masculinity in film-making, the discussion continued to be steered towards what my informants thought about the role of women in film. It seems as if gender was about women, and not about men. Thus it then became inevitable that my discussion about gender in Indonesian cinema, which takes into account both femininity and masculinity, is going against the natural current of discourse requiring, by implication, greater soul-searching and reading against the grain.

This is much like in the spirit of Richard Dyer’s description of male sexuality, that it is difficult to see it and talk about it, as it is like “air – you breathe it in all the time, but you aren’t not aware of it much” [1]. But this may have to do with the fact that historically, most Indonesian films throughout the New Order have been about men and when they do feature films with prominent female roles, they speak about men’s concerns or “spheres of action” while women fulfill merely a subsidiary role [2].

While I would agree that women in New Order cinema do play a secondary tole, I am inclined however to question the essentialising of what those spheres of action are. But this is how discourse and power relations and their intimate proximity to knowledge work; by highlighting, examining, scrutinising in microscopic detail the object we wish gain control of, through knowledge – by knowing more about them so we can control (if we wanted to) various aspect of our object of study/interest. And so how gender is taken to be seen as simply about women is a manifestation of a Foucaldian way of knowing; to know more about women and to gaze an object of study/scrutiny is to have further power over women (and indeed provide the resources for resistance).

The fixation of gender as women simultaneously elides the focus on the powerful and privileged of course. In the case of looking at gender in film, much has been discussed about women, queers, non-white (Asian, Black) characterisation in cinema. Only recently do we find the tables turned on the other, more powerful half of the power equation – masculinity and whiteness in film – discussed and therefore ‘exposed’ and losing its power as the epistemological voyeur in cinema.

To not ‘notice’ masculinity demonstrates how deeply impacted we are as film viewers by the dominant discourses of gender. We can argue that examining masculinity is more than just studying the men in films, but recognise the tropes or conventions male characters habitually exhibit and how the particular concerns expressed by the male characters drive the narrative of the film.

The next step in analysing gender in Indonesian film or any film for that matter is not to look specifically at femininity or masculinity at work on screen, but the gender dynamic, how the genders play against each other on screen. What I hope this can demonstrate is some semblance of gendered power differential played out between characters. Perhaps this analytical angle may provide an avenue for better understanding the ways in which representations of misogyny & propagation of certain gendered tropes are privileged and marginalised in film.

Besides masculinity, there is another taken-for-granted power relations at work in Indonesian film: Javanese cultural dominance.

In Indonesian cinema, we find other instances of power relations still under-examined, alongside masculinity vis a vis femininity in film, such as the Javanese cultural/linguistic dominance and the regionalisation of other Indonesian film set and made outside of Java. Karl Heider in Indonesian Cinema, National Culture on Screen, argues that Indonesian cinema has never really been regionalised, but rather nationalised due to lingua franca of Bahasa Indonesia in (all?) films during the New Order. The nationalisation of film was also an expression of Javanese cultural dominance imposed by Suharto’s regime on all modes of public communication, particularly cinema. But then, Heider’s book was written in 1991.

State control over the linguistic standardisation in Indonesian films explains why films made during the New Order, which are not only made in the standardised Bahasa Indonesia, but also more easily understood by Malay-speaking Malaysians. Whereas years following Suharto’s political demise, the cinematic articulation of Indonesian cinema was reclaimed by regionalisation. Indonesian films became more difficult for Malaysians to understand.

A case in point that signalled a cultural-linguistic dissonance between the two nations was when the film Ada Apa Dengan Cinta was broadcast on Malaysian television in 2003, with Malay subtitles. The much-talked about event perplexed local audiences who had assumed they would be able to largely understand the dialogue. Before then, working class Malaysians consumed plenty of Indonesian horror films VCDs and video tapes without Malay subtitles with enough comprehension of the dialogue and narrative.

Regionalisation meant that dialogue for films set in Jakarta for example would be heavily peppered with Jakarta slang and occasional Javanese (which would then come with subtitles in Bahasa Indonesia). Regionalisation of Indonesian cinema further underscores the vivid diversity of Indonesian peoples who do not necessarily understand each other linguistically but somehow remains largely silent, as a “national cinema”, who it largely represents.

__________________________

[1] Pg. 28 from Richard Dyer’s essay Male sexuality in the media, in The Sexuality of Men edited by Andy Metcalf, 1985, Pluto Press.

[2] Pg. 116 from Krishna Sen’s essay Repression and resistance: Interpretations of the feminine in Indonesian cinema, in Culture and society in New Order Indonesia: 1965-1990 edited by V. Hooker, 1995, Oxford University Press.

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