Gender and Gender Redux: Rethinking Binaries and the Aesthetics of Old-Style Javanese Wayang

By Weiss, Sarah | Women & Music, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Gender and Gender Redux: Rethinking Binaries and the Aesthetics of Old-Style Javanese Wayang


Weiss, Sarah, Women & Music


IN 1993 I PUBLISHED AN ARTICLE ENTITLED Gender and Gender: Gender Ideology and the Female Gender Player in Central Java." (1) Written when I was literally just out of the field, the article represented my preliminary attempts to untangle my own understanding of the paradoxical nature of gender ideologies as they functioned in Javanese culture and in particular in the world of Javanese wayang (shadow theater) performance. (2) I subsequently read deeply into the theoretical and ethnographic discourses in anthropology, linguistics, literature, and gender studies in general and in particular on Java, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia as I analyzed my ethnographic and musical data. Judith Butler's Gender Trouble was compelling for many reasons. (3) In particular, I thought that the idea of gender as a performed process, an ongoing negotiation between an individual and his or her locations in culture, might provide a potential pathway through the morass of conflicting gender constructions and valuations I had encountered in the field and in my reading. Additionally, I imagined that the decentering of gender binaries would prove to be the key to understanding how these multiple gender constructions could coexist synergistically as they seemed to do.

The nature of gender ideology in Java, as in much of insular Southeast Asia, is quite different from that in Euro-American cultures. As demonstrated throughout the essays in Jane Atkinson and Shelly Errington's edited volume Power and Difference, gender roles are not generally rigidly defined, although relative rigidity is determined by socioeconomic status in many different ways. (4) While there are certainly roles that are usually filled by either men or women, there are often no rules against a woman or a man performing or living a role normally filled by a member of the opposite gender. So when a woman becomes a dhalang (puppeteer) or a man runs his family's stall at the local market in Java, she or he has merely beaten the gender odds but is not breaking any deep-seated cultural rules, and his or her own location in society is not jeopardized in any way. (5)

Studies of gender in Java and in much of Southeast Asia often focus on the seemingly relatively higher status of women in Southeast Asia than in other places in the world. This has had something to do with the fact that in many places in Southeast Asia women have primary roles in controlling the family finances and running the local economy, roles that are traditionally perceived as male in the societies of the researchers themselves. It turns out that in Southeast Asia in general and Central Java in particular the daily engagement with money is not considered a high-status activity, although largess and the ability to move money and power at a metalevel are high-status activities generally associated with men. So the observations about women and money were correct, but the assumptions about the valuation of the activities were wrong. (6) Nevertheless, the nonrigid nature of gender roles remains an important element in Central Javanese gender options for individuals.

On the level of individual lived experience it seemed that my engagement with Butler's ideas for the analysis of gender in Central Java might prove to be more than fruitful. Here was a culture in which gender-role difference was reliably acceptable, if not always usual, providing an example of a society in which the gendering of roles and people in them is demonstrably processual and perhaps, pending further research, acknowledged as such by the people who live the culture. The problem turned out to be that this flexible gender-role relationship was counterbalanced by rigidly binary constructions of gender in Javanese mythologies. It occurred to me that the two phenomena were perhaps interconnected in a more general way and that it might be proven with subsequent research that cultures with rigid lived-gender roles might have more flexible gender constructions in their mythologies and vice versa. …

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