The following are notes from my final lecture for Sex and the City: Gender and Sexuality in Southeast Asia on trans identities in Indonesian cinema.
Disclaimer on the use of ‘definitions’
Since I am teaching this class in English, to students in a British institution with a largely unproblematised epistemological culture that privileges western ways of knowing about the world with a penchant for derivatising non-western epistemologies as ‘critiques’ at best, adjuncts at worst, I will need to introduce my lecture on trans identities with terms we already know or at least recognise in our nomenclature for variant gendered subjectivities.
That said, does anyone in class know the differences between transgender, transsexual, queer, transvestite, cross-dressers, drag kings and drag queens?
Transgender is a broad term to describe people whose gender identities do not match their biological sex. Gender and sex are different. Gender denotes social characteristics that are usually used to differentiate between women from men. But this is a limiting, binaristic term that has a risk of becoming quite essentialist.
Cross-dressers and tranvestites tend to be used inter-changibly to describe people who simply have just have a preference, sometimes involving sexual arousal when they wear clothes worn usually by the opposite sex.
Queer is an umbrella term to denote sexual minorities and gender variant people. The term was reclaimed from the derogative term to mean homosexual individuals, and now it is used as a political position against heterosexist and transphobic ideologies and discourse.
Drag king is a female performance artists who dress and act like a caricuture man often performing stereotypes of men, incorporating singing and dancing at times. Drag Kings also do impersonations of famous male personalities like Elvis Presley, which is a drag king favourite – I believe both Annie Lennox and Sharleen Spiteri of the band texas have done Elvis impersonations, and very well, too. I’m sure you’re more familiar with drag queens, particularly now that we have Priscilla Queen of the Desert the musical on Shaftesbusy Avenue. Yes, what’s wrong with a bit singing and dancing men in drag and conflate trangender and transsexual people into the mix? Hm.
So, transsexuality is a person’s identification with a gender identity that is not consistent with biological sex. Transsexuality comes with a desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex, usually accompanied by a sense of discomfort with, or inappropriateness of, one’s anatomic sex, and a wish to have surgery and hormonal treatment to make one’s body as congruent as possible with one’s preferred sex.
Because I am using the terms transsexual women and men quite a lot in this lecture, I will use the terms cis-gender or cis-sexual women and men to describe people who are not transsexual. Mainly because if I said just ‘woman’ to describe cis-sexual woman, it seems as if the default woman is only those who are born with the biological sex and gender match. To use to term cis-sexual/cis-gender also destabilises the dominance and normality of cis-gender identities. It draws attention to the fact that we cannot take for granted that only cis-gender women are in fact ‘women’. Transsexual women are women, too. They identify as women, feel that they’re women inside, and most definitely prefer the pronoun ‘she’. It is very offensive for many transsexual women to be described as a ‘he’.
Representations of transsexuality – cliches and bad stereotypes
For the sake of the film, we will focus on transsexuality as characters in cinema more generally as opposed to simply transgender identities. And then I will focus on representations of characters assumed to be transsexual, transvestite, and just transgender in Indonesian film. Representations of transsexual identities in film tend to fall into a very limited, often very negative spectrum of freak-show exploitation that occur in documentaries, fictional film, and pornography.
In film-making of the Anglosphere, that includes Hollywood, independent American, British, and Australian cinema, transsexual characters are usually played by cis-sexual male actors and exhibit flamboyance, campness, tawdriness, and tragicomedy with great frequency. We have depictions of transsexuals as a joke: these characters tend to inhabit tragic and comedic roles often at their own expense. They’re often conflated with drag queens and cross-dressers who find themselves in outrageous situations where they are the source of the joke or object of derision. Transwoman actor and model Calpernia Addams who has written about representations of transsexual people in film, says that transsexuals in film can be summed in 4 P’s: Prostitutes, Psychos, Punchlines, and Poor Thing! Who are the “noble victim” of society’s intolerance.
In Hollywood film-making from the 1970s onwards, transsexual characters became psychopathic serial killers in the B-film Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde in 1971, Brian de Palma’s 1980’s Dressed to Kill, and the characterisation of Buffalo Bill in the Silence of the lambs, made in 1991. In both Dressed to Kill and Silence of the lambs, the serial killers were denied sex-reassignment surgery and because of this denial, murder people out of revenge for society’s lack of acceptance towards trans people, otherwise known as transphobia. The two films suggest that their murderous tendencies are all down to their lack of access to a sex reassignment surgery.
Then there are the films based true or actual documentaries depicting real-life transsexuals. Among them include the highly acclaimed Paris is Burning, an excellent film about the Black gay and transsexual ball in New York City. There is Southern Comfort about the female to male transsexual, and there is Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hilary Swank a cis-sexual woman who won an Oscar for her role in the film.
There will always been close-ups on transsexual women and men dressing up, putting on make-up, painting their nails, their wigs, bounding their breasts to make their chests flat. Such close-ups fetishise the bodies of transsexual people, and sexualise their body parts, objectifying them, turning them into objects of our prurient and voyeuristic interests. This is also typical in images that eroticise cis-women’s body parts, close-ups that focus on exposed or exposing body parts for the viewer’s pleasure. The use of close-ups here are certainly different; close-ups of transsexual bodies are meant to shock yet titillate, while close-ups of cis-women’s bodies are just titillating. These shots are problematic because they reduce ideas about femininity in very crude ways, through make-up, high heels, stockings, and clothes.
Clichés and stereotypes serve as a kind of shorthand that people use to categorise others into comfortable “types” without having to do much work, and even when someone seems to fit a cliché, there are always deeper levels. Outside of the easy clichés, there are so many other interesting realities that transsexual people experience.
The trends and stereotypes we’ve seen is largely part and parcel of how transphobic film industries tend to be, with little awareness of trans issues and rights, and most importantly the fact that there are always so few to no trans people working in the film industry. As one transsexual activist Calpernia Addams has observed, transsexual people very rarely are featured in film as themselves or as transsexual people. What is much rare still are transsexual people playing non-transsexual people. There are some similarities in the representations of transsexual people in Indonesian cinema.
Representations of transsexuality in Indonesian cinema
There are not many depictions of trans characters in Indonesian films. But when they are, transsexuality in New Order Indonesian cinema is mixed with cross-dressing and real transsexual characters. Depictions of trans people tend to be similar to some of the stereotypes in Anglo-American and Australian films of impoverished street sex workers and in newer post New Order Indonesian films, drag queens. In Indonesian films of the late 1970s, such as Betty Bencong Slebor, transgender women are featured as comedic relief. Oftentimes, they are ridiculed and denigrated in public. As shown in this clip from Betty Bencong Slebor, who is a domestic servant in an Indonesian household. Here, she is invited to sing in a village fair. But it becomes clear that people do not like her for some reason. Interestingly, we have a white woman from out of nowhere who is most vociferous in attacking Betty:
One film that stands out as a true-to-life depiction of life as a transsexual in Indonesia is Akulah Vivian (I am Vivian), also made in the late 1970s, about a woman who undergoes a sex reassignment surgery to transition from male to female. Vivian faces prejudice and transphobia, and eventually finds a cis-sexual man who loves her.
In the film we have watched today (Realita Cinta dan Rock n Roll, 2006) we have Mariana who challenges all previous stereotypes of the poor, desperate, and marginalised transsexual woman. We have a transsexual character who is a parent, wealthy, and a quirky combination of masculinity and femininity. In constrast to the maternal waria is the reflexive caricuture of Madame X, trans super hero and avenger of fellow waria who are victimised by a religious cult group. But how does this portrayal fare against the realities of being a trans person in Indonesia?
The reality of life as a waria in Indonesia
In Indonesia, there isn’t one term that best translates as “transsexual”. There is the waria, which is the combination of the Indonesian words for wanita to mean women and pria to mean men. In different parts of Indonesia, the cultural terms are different; in Bali and Sulawesi, they’re sometimes called Kedi. In Makkasar, they’re kawe-kawe. Among the Bugis and in Kalimantan, Borneo, they’re called the cultural term, calabai and calalai.
But the generic term waria has come to mean mainly transgender women who are born biologically male but feel that they have the ‘soul’ of a woman. Because sex reassignment surgery is very expensive and not available in hospitals, the sex reassignment surgeries are very rare, and so post-operation transsexuals in Indonesia are rare.
Waria tend to be confused with gay men a lot in Indonesia. The term that blurs trans people and gay men is banci, a broad pejorative term to describe any effeminate man, a man who does feminine work, a playground insult, a transgender or transsexual woman. The widespread use of a derogatory term that collapses multiple gender and sexual identities make it quite hard to get more neutral terms like waria and gay (the Indonesian version of gay) to come into wider use.
There is also a tendency to class warias as a “third gender”, which is now being challenged by scholars in Indonesian studies. I know that a number of authors on Indonesian studies such as Leonard and Barbara Andaya like this term, while Tom Boellstorff is more reluctant to use this term. Instead, he classes them as “male tranvestites” and “male transgenders.”
In some ways, I can understand why a lack of agreement on terms occurs; it’s mainly because people like to put categories on people’s gender usually without referring to gender variant individuals themselves what terms or pronouns would suit them best. Most of the people who make such categories are rarely ever trans people themselves and place labels as they please without causing much harm or identity crisis on people like themselves. It’s called cis-gender privilege.
Also ,we live in a gender-obsessed society. So we MUST know how to address a person: are they male or female. There’s a fascination, obsession, and insistence that we know one’s gender. Which is why many trans people are faced with the completely unsolicited question by total strangers, “Are you a bird or a bloke”?
When babies are born, is it a girl or a boy? When people do not fit our rather rigid gender binary, then we think we’re coming across a problem, an abnormality, and very often what we think as problems cause more complications on the lives of transgenderism and transsexual people.
For the sake of this class and some 101 guide to trans identities in Indonesia, it’s safe enough to categorise the waria under transgender or transsexual. Most seem to prefer to identify as women, so they are trans women. Unless many are versed in gender theory and fully embrace the notion that there’s a seperation between biological sex and gender which is socially constructed, many of which may belong to educated, middle-class economic bracket, we need to keep the gender categories loose due to difference in culture and class within cultures.
This includes the terms like gay, which is not really used as an identity marker in Indonesia very much unless you happen to identify with global, more western gay culture. Which is why David Cameron’s proposal to cut aid in non-western countries that do not have provisions that protect gay people is ignorant, classist, and Eurocentric. A country or cultures are not necessarily homophobic because many do not identify as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, sometimes the terms, practices, and sexual norms which we may consider as homosexual or non-normative just happen to have different systems of classifications, names, or none at all.
To a certain extent, warias are generally considered acceptable for a variety of reasons, warias, just like the trans women in Malaysia and Singapore who called the Mak Nyah, are stereotypically known to be good as hair-dressers and make-up artists. Considered as experts of feminine beauty, they are usually hired as bridal make-up artists during weddings, and they’re called Mak Andam.
There’s also the local court tradition in southern Sulawesi of the bissu, who are holy individuals who are blessed with special powers. The bissu, although displaying both feminine and masculiine characteristics, mainly through attire, are not according to authors on Indonesian studies, waria. They are, as Tom Boellstorff rather clunkily coines them, the “ethnolocalised homosexualities and transvestite subject positions” or rather charmingly, ETPs.
But this does not mean that the waria do not experience discrimination, oppression, and violence on a regular basis in Indonesia. They do. As we recall in various scenes in Realita Cinta, the trans women in the beginning of the film are depicted as far from desirable and almost always as sex workers. Mariana, not matter hard she tries to be a good parent, Nugi’s idea of a ‘real’ family is a male father and female mother. Very heteronormative.
For the best accounts on the life of waria and gay men in Indonesia, I suggest you read the works of the Indonesian LGBT activist Dede Oetomo. According to Oetomo, although many warias wish to identify as women, and become real women through superficial appearances, many display characteristics that make them quite unique from other cis-gender women, such as greater physical strength to fight off other men, the boldness in attracting a cis-man’s attention, through groping and grabbing a man’s crotch that one perhaps never will see in Indonesian cis-gender women.
In sum, I would stress that it is important to consider gender categories as fluid. Although we may assume that biological sex is binaristic between male and female genitalia, new evidence is showing that even biological sex, based on our primary and secondary sexual characteristics – which are our primary being are sexual reproductive organs – our gonads, and sex organs. And secondary sexual characterisatics – hormones, things like facial hair, shape of face, growth or lack of growth in breasts – these things are shown to exist on spectrum. The fluidity of our biological sex and gender challenges some rigid ideas about makes a ‘real’ woman or ‘real’ man. These ideas are social and cultural. In the case of transsexual people in Indonesia, or the waria, some may identify with the globalised western framework of gender that seperates gender from biological sex. Other may not. Film currently may not or may not be the best forum to discuss the variances of gender. But we will find out in our tutorial. But now, we’ll take a 10 minute break.