Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Men, Masculinities and Symbolic Violence in Recent Indonesian Cinema

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Men, Masculinities and Symbolic Violence in Recent Indonesian Cinema

Article excerpt

According to Krishna Sen, the majority of the genres of Indonesian films are, by definition, 'about men and what the films define as men's sphere of action', and while every film has some female characters, they are 'only in subsidiary roles so that women's images and actions have a small and/or unimportant function in the narrative'. (1) As might be expected, feminist analysis of Indonesian cinema has focused on women. Meanwhile, the dominance of men has been treated as the 'norm', and portrayals of men in the media and popular culture have been seen as unproblematic, but masculinity as such has not been discussed or analysed. Commenting on Western cinema, Steve Neale observed twenty years ago that 'the images and functions of heterosexual masculinity within mainstream cinema have been left undiscussed'. (2) This is no longer the case, especially with the boom in 'men's studies' over the last fifteen years. An ever-increasing body of work has been produced regarding men and masculinities, utilising various feminist and pro-feminist perspectives. In this respect, critical study of men and men's practices in Indonesia is long overdue, and the scholarship on Indonesian gender issues has arguably suffered from the lack of a masculine perspective.

Why use film as a launching pad into an examination of conceptions of Indonesian masculinities? As Robert Connell has argued, in a society of mass communication, one of the best ways to study images of dominant forms of masculinity is through media representations in advertisements, television shows and films. (3) This is because in mass communication, representations of gender are more simplified, stylised and exaggerated than in face-to-face interactions. In Indonesia, there is no doubt that a commercialised 'society of mass communication' has already emerged: with the rise of a larger, more affluent middle class in the mid-1980s, huge, profitable press empires emerged, and several privately-owned television stations appeared in the last years of that decade. (4) In the Indonesian context, however, it is almost impossible to find any analyses that seek to examine in detail the ways in which masculinities are inscribed in genres of mass communication such as film. The sociocultural contexts underpinning such inscriptions are also equally unexplored.

On rare occasions, this gap in feminist analyses of Indonesian cinema becomes apparent, but is left undiscussed. For example, Karl Heider has taken Sen to task for concluding that in the vast majority of Indonesian films women are passive rather than active. (5) Heider utilises ethnographic research from cultures as diverse as Java, Aceh and Minangkabau to present some modifications to Sen's argument; most importantly, he contends that in the domestic arena women are at least equal to men and indeed often dominant. As Sen herself suggests later in reference to the teenage romance and drama genres, it is in what Heider terms the 'sentimental' genre of Indonesian film, which plays out in the domestic arena, that we witness the central women characters playing very strong and independent roles. (6) More importantly, according to Heider these strong women play opposite males who are usually weak: 'The men are passive, or, if active, create the disorder which must be salvaged in the end by the women.' (7) Heider observes that there are exceptions--weak or foolish women--but they are far outnumbered by weak and foolish men.

Sen responds in turn to Heider's 'cultural' analysis of gender issues in Indonesia by posing the following question: 'We need to ask, then, when the woman is represented as powerful or vocal, to what effect and in whose interest is this strength mobilised in the text?' (8) Sen argues elsewhere that any movement of women beyond the domestic sphere becomes an issue of contention within the film's narrative which can only be resolved with the restoration of the 'proper' social role of the heroine, that is, in her function as a mother within a family. …

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