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Women in Javanese popular theatre

Published: Nov 18, 2013

Though limited, contemporary popular theatre offers Indonesian women a vital forum of expression not available in traditional theatre

Barbara Hatley

Many dramatic genres, cultivated in particular geographical areas, among different social groups, contribute to the rich variety of Javanese theatrical tradition. Theatre performances have long held a prominent place in Javanese life, staged to celebrate key social events, dramatising well-known myths and stories, affording for players and audience members a sense of shared cultural identity. Such performances also express and reinforce ideological values. Shows are wholly improvised,-using no scripts or rehearsals, from stock scene types and characterisations. In these are conveyed notions of social order, of appropriate relations between social groups, of idealised and disvalued personal behaviour.

All types of Javanese theatre draw on a common store of these elements, rooted in shared understandings of the world. But in each the standard features take a particular form which accords with the way the drama is produced and who performs and watches it. Within a single genre, too, dramatic imagery and social message may be shaped by particular circumstances of production - nature of occasion being celebrated, identity of sponsor, background of performers and audience members.

Javanese theatre thus projects variable meanings which give expression to the viewpoints of different social groups. One key area of thought and experience reflected on in this way in theatre performances is that of gender. Stage representations of men and women figures, and of interaction between them, embody ideal models of gender relations and satirical critiques of everyday reality. Of major importance in determining the kind of representation which takes place is the way men and women participate in the production of the show.

The wayang tradition

In the world of wayang kulit women play a generally circumscribed and restricted role. Women dalang (puppeteers) are rare, few women are present in wayang audiences and female characters participate in a relatively minor way in story action. In my own experience of wayang watching, women characters not only appear infrequently but also conform overwhelmingly to just two character types - refined queens and princesses, notable for their beauty and loyal devotion to their husbands, and raucous, ungainly maidservants. Wayang meanwhile has the reputation of an exclusively male pursuit, unintelligible and uninteresting to women in its erudite language and philosophy.

How did this situation arise? One significant factor may be the close association of wayang with Javanese mystical beliefs and practices, and the function of performances as a kind of religious rite. In traditional Javanese thinking, religious ritual, like other public ceremonial activity is a man's domain, as is mystical practice; woman's realm is that of family and household. Women prepare the food for, but are not present at, the formal ritual of the slametan feast. And at wayang performances, held for the same kind of events which necessitate a slametan, the women remain behind the scenes. Meanwhile, out front, men perform and watch stories set in a male world of military adventure and spiritual quest, with women figures confined to the very limited roles mentioned above.

In Javanese theatrical tradition as a whole, strongly shaped by the model of wayang, images of woman as refined noble lady and comic maidservant are widespread. They correspond to stereotypes of women long-entrenched in Javanese gender ideology. The first might be termed an 'aristocratic' model, cultivated particularly among the noble elite but idealized at all social levels. The second makes reference to a more down-to-earth understanding of women's characteristics and male-female relations which holds sway among the ordinary people of village and kampung. Here women, far from being dependent on men, participate actively in economic life, in agriculture and market trade, complementing male activities, while also running a household. Yet in their exclusion from the prestigious male preoccupations of religious ritual, spiritual development and refined speech, women are attributed inferior qualities to those of men. Their concerns are seen as petty and mundane by comparison; they lack the refinement, dignity and control which is the outward manifestation of male spiritual strength. Hence their speech is regarded as blunt and informal, their behaviour often embarrassingly unrestrained.

Alongside comic maidservants, another figure providing humorous theatrical reflection upon such a view of women is that of the loud, nagging village wife. Appearing occasionally in wayang, such figures abound in village folk plays. On occasion an assertive, independent noble lady appears, positively portrayed. Srikandhi, second wife of Arjuna in wayang stories is the best-known example. But such figures remain exceptions to an overall pattern of derogation of female straightforwardness and forcefulness, and idealization of an image of refined, gentle supportive woman. In most of traditional Javanese theatre, performed until recently exclusively by men, before predominantly male audiences at ritual celebrations, men celebrate their own ideal image of women, and make mocking parody of real-life female qualities.

Development of popular theatre

Alongside long-established 'traditional' forms of theatre there have developed since the early twentieth century a number of new popular dramas combining elements of indigenous theatrical tradition with Western-derived stage techniques. They perform on stage, in the manner of a Western play, stories from Javanese history and legend, foreign literature, even contemporary films. Neither commercial shows nor those performed by amateur actors have any perceived 'religious' connection. Their content and language is regarded as simple, straightforward, accessible to all. Their audiences are made up of lower-class village and kampung-dwellers, the social group among whom such theatre genres originated. Large numbers of women both perform and watch these shows.

The Surabaya-based drama ludrug is performed by all-male casts, in raunchy, comic style with female characters represented in exaggeratedly sexy or satirical fashion. In other genres women perform their own parts. Sometimes an explicit female connection is drawn. Central Javanese kethoprak, for example, is reputed to appeal particularly to women, because of its sentimental, romantic plots. Men often mention this connection dismissively, with implication of triviality and lack of serious status. In elite circles, kethoprak, like ally, is denigrated another perspective, because of its performance by poor, uneducated people, and resulting crudity of form. But whatever its perceived artistic or 'philosophical' deficiencies, such theatre plays a vital social role, in expressing the attitudes and consciousness of its participants. A dramatic form like kethoprak offers insights into the way ordinary Javanese women, a social group whose views would normally find little public expression, portray and understand female experience and relations between the sexes.

Women in Kethoprak

Kethoprak inherits from Javanese theatrical tradition the standard characterisations of women discussed above. The delicate, demure princess is a familiar figure, as is that of the sharp-tongued, domineering village wife. But alongside the refined, shy heroine there appears another type of female lead, glamorous, spirited and vivacious, direct and assertive of speech. Instead of occasional exceptions to the norm as in older forms of theatre, here such figures constitute a fully-fledged type, alternate to and indeed more popular than sweet, demure heroines. Male audience members greatly enjoy their cheeky, flirtatious approaches to men. But these women are also outspoken in their criticisms of male faults. As they chastise a husband or sweetheart over such issues as excessive jealousy, infidelity or neglect, women audience members often laugh and clap, while men may glower silently or give an occasional derisive hoot. Kethoprak heroines in the course of their adventures frequently attract unwelcome sexual attention from predatory males. As these ladies back away in horror from the outstretched arms and Jeering expressions of their would-be seducers, men in the audience may respond with laughter and ribald comments, as women frown in disapproval and concern. A lady of assertive demeanour will berate the man for presuming on her personal rights: a more demure figure will simply run away. She may appear again in a following scene, alone in a dark forest, head in hands, sobbing pitifully while the gamelan orchestra plays a melancholy air.

These incidents involving women are included as troupe members judge romantic and domestic themes to be appropriate for such secular public entertainment, and respond to the perceived tastes of women viewers. That such shows indeed engage the hearts and minds of women audience members is indicated by the experience of a neighbour of mine, who would sometimes report that she had been unable to sleep in her concern over the sufferings of the heroine in a kethoprak radio broadcast. Additionally, a further factor influencing kethoprak depiction of women may be reactions to modernising ideology.

Strengthening womanly identity?

The assertive type of noble heroine in kethoprak is frequently described as both 'modern' and 'like foreign women'. On occasion this association is underlined explicity in stage dialogue. 'Don't go thinking that I'm like the women of former times!' declared a tigerish female warrior in one performance, clad in lame pant-suit, to a startled male who hesitated to take her challenge seriously. Here is suggestion of influence from outside the Javanese world in shaping this character type, a resonance with the Western-influenced concept of the independent and active 'modern woman'. 

This notion was first promoted in Indonesia by a tiny pre-war modernising elite. It gained widespread currency in the 1950s and '60s, in the progressive political climate of the time, as women's organizations associated. with various parties encouraged women's participation in social and political affairs. With the shift to a more conservative authoritarian political system in the 70s and 80s, ideology concerning women has likewise become more conservative. Emphasis is placed on women's contribution to society through their roles as wives and mothers rather than as independent actors. Yet women are nevertheless seen as a distinct social category, contributing in their own way to national progress, in contrast to their traditional exclusion from the male public domain. Family issues are given new social importance.

Such trends may be seen reflected in stage representation of women. Kethoprak heroines generally do not carry out the kind of action suggestive of feminine 'advancement' - such as acquiring education or participating independently in political affairs. Instead their perceived 'modernity' lies in their confident assertiveness and direct, unselfconscious speech. Yet the situations in which they display these qualities, in upbraiding a presumptuous suitor or chastising a neglectful husband - resonate with precedents from Javanese theatrical tradition, with the familiar image of the plain-speaking village wife. Here female characteristics of assertiveness and blunt, direct speech long disparaged by men, treated in satirical fashion on stage, are presented positively, assimilated to the prestigious image of modern woman. Issues of womanly concern, such as male infidelity, normally referred to on stage only in comic incident, are asserted seriously. Actresses playing the parts of princesses of old may be drawing in a broad way on modernizing ideology concerning women, interpreting it in a way relevant to the interests of their audiences. They present a glamourised rendering of the traits of ordinary women and demand serious consideration of their concerns.

Kethoprak performances may be giving expression to a sense of shared identity among actresses and women viewers, a developing, strengthening female self-image. But such expression is very circumscribed. Female performers must interact constantly with male actors under the authority of a male director. The degree of serious attention given to female perspectives depends importantly on the strength of personality and performing skill of lead actresses. The kind of attitudes revealed in the male audience reactions noted earlier are shared by male performers. They often prompt stage teasing of assertive ladies and attempted trivialising of their concerns. By the same token, when a star actress is able to outclass her interlocutor with stinging repartee, the result is an enhancing of female prestige, as well as great theatrical fun.

More important than the attitudes and strategies of male performers in limiting female expression are inbuilt features of dramatic imagery and narrative structure. Even lively, forceful heroines are constrained by the framework of the stories in which they appear, and conventions inherited from Javanese theatrical tradition, to their parts as wives, sweethearts and daughters. The world of women's work and sociality receive~ virtually no representation on stage. Young children, such an important source of real-life female domestic influence, are absent. Women figures have no autonomous sphere of action but are dramatically important only in their relationship to key male characters. Their forceful assertions, in criticism of men and defence of women's views, convey a sense of determined conviction. But their vehemence may also suggest a sense of frustration and resentment at being limited to passive criticism of men rather than independent womanly activity.


Restrictions in stage representation of women correspond to limitations on female experience and thought in everyday life. In real-life, too, as on the stage, women must give deference to men; lack of ideological support in the world beyond the stage compounds the theatrical constraints noted above. But popular theatre nevertheless provides a vital forum for the expression of understandings of gender, for the assertion of women's views alongside those of men. Women audience members, while hugely enjoying the humour and spectacle of a kethoprak show, also find reinforcement of their female identity. Here is 'people's culture' giving expression to the viewpoints of various groups of people, including some, like women, whose voices are not often heard.

Inside Indonesia 10: April 1987

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