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Review: The ‘man question’ in Indonesian film and literature

Review: The ‘man question’ in Indonesian film and literature
Published: Jun 02, 2012

Marshall Clark examines how masculinity is imagined in contemporary Indonesia


Andy Fuller

Maskulinitas is a book about popular culture. It looks sideways rather than backwards into the past. The book crosses a number of genres and also engages with different and diverse writers and filmmakers in contemporary Indonesia. A film about youths growing up in a poor Jakartan suburb. A poet describing the body and his desires. A character in a novel who resembles a figure from the Mahabharata. A novel in which the main male protagonist is based on a pre-independent journalist. These are some of the cultural products that Marshall Clark uses for his analyses of how masculinity – or, rather maskulinitas – is imagined through film and literature.

The male subject

In Maskulinitas, Clark presents analysis of widely-read texts and widely-viewed films from contemporary literature and cinema in Indonesia, and points to some emerging trends in the gendering of Indonesian masculinities. In doing so, he seeks to redress an imbalance in gender studies. The issue is not the way in which women have been subjected to gendered stereotypes and conformity but rather how male subjectivities are also shaped by prevailing social, cultural and religious forces. Clark refers to Pierre Bourdieu to assert that ‘men are often just as subject to the patriarchal structures of gender dominations as women’.

There is an emerging body of work on Indonesian popular culture including studies of film, soap operas, radio and various kinds of pop music such as punk and reggae. Clark’s study differs from these works by its focus on the gendered roles and discourses within cultural products such as these, particularly books, poetry and film. The selection seems patchy; perhaps a little too indicative of Clark’s own tastes. Nonetheless, it’s a contemporary book and speaks directly of the author’s current interests.

Myth, the wayang and Javanese masculinities are a key reference point in Clark’s analysis of Indonesian literature and the arts. In his earlier book Wayang Mbeling he looked at ways in which characters from the Ramayana were represented in contemporary Indonesian fiction. The past informs the present. In Maskulinitas, Clark continues to explore this convergence of past literary practices with those of the present: ‘the ongoing reinterpretation of myth and questioning of dominant gender ideologies can … be seen as [a] rich entry point into a fresh understanding of post-authoritarian Indonesia’. As vital resources of identity he engages with these texts to examine how gender is being renegotiated in a new social and political context.

Art and politics

Clark opens the book with an outline of some of the important developments and trends in the arts and politics in the years leading up to the fall of the Suharto government. These include the publication of Ayu Utami’s novel Saman, the Ruwatan Bumi 98 (Earth Exorcism) cultural movement and the increasing diversity of political activity amongst the common people. Clark argues that the intersection of the arts with politics in Indonesia is particularly sharp as its ‘artists have long been regarded as cultural prophets [with] their relevance rising exponentially at times of intense social and political turmoil’. Figures such as Chairil Anwar, Rendra and Emha Ainun Nadjib are given as examples of poets who have encapsulated the spirit of their times.

Chapter one opens the discussion of what Clark terms the ‘man question’ – that is the way men and masculinities are shaped. He observes the conservative reaction against the post-New Order rise of feminism and the proliferation of women’s groups. This chapter reflects on how gender studies has, or has not considered masculinities within discourses on social constructions of gender. Clark applies Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the ‘carnivalesque’ to the ‘tensions between dominant masculinity and alternative masculine identities in contemporary Indonesia’. Other key concepts applied from Bakhtin are those of heteroglossia (the presence of conflicting discourses), dialogism (a cross-referencing of other texts) and polyphony (a diversity of voices). Clark points out that his study and use of Bakhtinian concepts in the area of Indonesia popular culture echoes Henk Maier’s survey of Malay literature, We are Playing Relatives.

It is in chapter two that Clarke begins his case studies of masculinities in Indonesian cultural production. His first examples are the novels of Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Clark divides the masculine models found in Pramoedya’s work into roughly those of ‘hero’ and ‘anti-hero’. These much studied novels are read in a new light and take a departure from the readings of Anderson, Day, Maier, Bahari, and Foulcher among others.

Chapter three turns to another much-celebrated author, Ayu Utami, and her novel Saman – a novel that captured many of the social and political conflicts of the time leading up to the fall of the Suharto government. Clark reads Saman largely through the figure of Wis – a character he relates to the mythical Mahabharata figure of Bambang Wisanggeni. He is good-looking, smart, has supernatural powers and is ‘outspoken, garrulous, honest, principled and well-intentioned’. Where Saman has largely been regarded for its innovative structure and its countering of New Order female gendered norms, Clark applies a ‘mythopoeic’ reading to show up Wis’s ‘mythological ancestry’. I find Clark’s reading a little unconvincing: some interpretations appear a little simplistic. Moreover, despite the chapter’s title, referring to ‘polyphony’, there is little Bakhtinian theory to back up the characterisation.

Chapter four provides a reading of Kuldesak – one of the landmark films of ‘Indonesia’s Generation X’. Clark considers one of the film’s characters, Andre, to be an ‘embodiment of a subversive discourse of maskulinitas and of Indonesia’s dominant elite’. He concludes that ‘through questioning gendered power, Kuldesak both refuses and challenges the New Order’s monolithic and patriarchal consciousness’. Chapter five continues the emphasis on contemporary Indonesian cinematic practice, drawing on the films of Rudi Soedjarwo including the films Mengejar Matahari, 9 Naga and Pocong 2. In this case, however, Clark is much less positive about some recent tendencies, observing that ‘contemporary images of the debased feminine are closely associated with masculine fears and masculine attempts to control female behaviour and reinforce heterosexual masculinity… [depictions of monstrous femininity are] a manifestation of the rage of normative masculinity’.

In chapter six Clark examines the recent poetry of Binhad Nurrohmat whose work he reads through the lens of ‘scandal, transgression and the politics of the erotic’. Binhad’s poems are controversial because of their explicit descriptions of the body and of sexual activity and were removed from the shelves of a major chain of book stores. Binhad also attracts controversy and censure from other writers for his strident views and irreverent manner in literary discussions and debates. Elsewhere Clark has translated a collection of Binhad Nurrohmat’s poetry and has written numerous essays on him. Indeed, Clark can be seen as not only a champion of the importance of contemporary writing, but of Binhad Nurrohmat in particular. Clark’s attention to and interest in, a writer as controversial and polarising as Binhad has caused him some degree of criticism from writers and critics in Indonesia. His enthusiasm for Binhad’s writing is evident in this detailed last chapter which contains numerous poems in translation. I find some passages a little too enthusiastic. And, at times, his close interpretation of Binhad’s poetry is a little limiting. The poems are rather over-represented in the analysis – giving the impression that Clark doubts their ability to stand alone.

Nonetheless, this book is a significant contribution to the studies of contemporary popular culture in Indonesia. Importantly, it questions the dominant emphasis upon female gender constructions in the literature and re-asserts the importance and innovation (or conservatism) of cultural products in renegotiating hegemonic constructions of gendered identities. Maskulinitas seeks to open a debate on the subject and thus serves as an important tool and reference for critiquing contemporary Indonesian masculinities.

Marshall Clark, Maskulinitas: Culture, Gender and Politics in Indonesia. Caulfield: Monash Asia Institute, 2010.

Andy Fuller ( is a post-doctoral fellow at IIAS in Leiden, the Netherlands. A book of his translations of Afrizal Malna’s poems will be published by Lontar in July 2012.


Inside Indonesia 108: Apr-Jun 2012

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