Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Girl culture on the big screen

Hapsari Sulistyani

Ada Apa Dengan Cinta (A2DC), or What’s up with Love, is one of the most successful Indonesian films of recent years. Hitting the box office in March 2002, A2DC attracted an audience of more than two million cinema-goers. In comparison, the average audience for an Indonesian film for that year was around 100,000. Even the successful Ca Bau Kan (The Courtesan) only attracted 250,000 people.

The film’s title, with its clever play on words (Cinta, which means ‘love’ is also the film’s main character), immediately places Cinta centre stage. It signals a shift in Indonesian cinema in which teenage girls have moved into lead roles. In fact, A2DC has triggered a wave of teen flicks that place young female stars in lead-role celebrity.

However, A2DC is no cause for celebration amongst Indonesia’s equal rights proponents. Ultimately, the plot glosses over the empowered qualities of its female lead and reinforces existing gender stereotypes.

What’s love got to do with it?

A2DC’s main character Cinta, is a strong girl who has a group of close friends: Maura, Milly, Alya and Karmen. The five are inseparable both in and out of school. Different in personality, they are all wealthy and beautiful.

Cinta is also close to, and occasionally dates, Borne, the most popular boy in school. A shift in Cinta’s charmed world is evident when she is defeated in the school poetry competition, which in previous years she had always won. She is defeated by Rangga, a reclusive, introverted young man with no close friends and a passion for literature.

Cinta is attracted to Rangga, but is afraid that her peers will react negatively if she reveals her feelings about Rangga to them. Cinta’s coming to terms with this situation is the film’s main narrative.

While A2DC is generally a feel-good film it does not shy away from depicting the kinds of issues many teenage girls face. In addition to Cinta’s loves and friendships, the film also touches on more serious issues, including domestic violence and post-Suharto politics. Most disquieting, however, is the way A2DC unintentionally, and perhaps ironically, portrays a bleak image of contemporary gender politics.

A local tradition

So, in what ways is A2DC different from teen movies of the past? Well, for a start the female leads are normalised, even idolised by the camera. They are not the social misfits teenage girls tended to play in the past.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, girls frequently featured as main characters in teen-flicks. Examples include Selamat Tinggal Masa Remaja (Goodbye to Adolescence), Puber (Puberty) and Perawan-perawan (Virgins). However, the era and genre dictated the pattern such films followed: initially rebellious delinquents were inevitably discredited and brought to order.

The implicit suggestion was that there was something wrong with the girls, but that their malady could be remedied by a dose of Suharto’s New Order morality. In the classic tradition of the times, the values of the older generation were ultimately victorious. The teenagers’ only choice was to adopt those tried and tested values.

By the end of the 1980s, there were very few films where young female characters drove the narrative. The teen-flicks that created trends and idols for young people predominantly featured male protagonists, as was seen in Catatan Si Boy (Boy’s Diary), Lupus and Si Roy (Roy).

Cultural and political change has meant that in the noughties, parts for teenage girls are popular and pretty. They are, however, no longer flawed characters in need of rehabilitation. The success of this trend within the chick-flick-teen-pic genre suggests that the current generation of young people easily identify with, or aspire to, the new images of girls on-screen.

Undeniably, Indonesian chic-flick-teen-pics have borrowed Hollywood plotlines. As local film production houses were relatively inactive in the nineties, appropriating Hollywood formats makes sense. Hollywood narratives are familiar and thus easily marketable to contemporary young people.

Another Hollywood marketing trick that translates into its new context is the production of a film soundtrack. In A2DC, music punctuates the film, with its pop beat reeling the audience in closer to the characters and their trials. The film’s catchy pop soundtrack was written and performed by one of Indonesia’s most popular female singers, Melly Goesllaw, and was an important part of A2DC’s commercial success.

Normal. Not nerds!

A2DC’s characters also borrow from Hollywood formats. In any hierarchy there is a pecking order and in A2DC, nerds occupy the lowest rung. In the opening scene, as the ‘normal’ (defined as happy, gorgeous and popular) girls come into shot, we also see the nerds. Badly dressed, bespectacled, with books lodged firmly under their arms, this group of students fits the stereotype of any teen movie’s uncool characters. Mamet, one of the nerds, becomes the laughing stock of the school when he is deliberately pushed and his books fall to the floor.

Later in the film, Cinta’s peer group also behaves cruelly towards Mamet. In fact, their cruelty is the film’s main source of humour. Revenge of the Nerds this film is not, and unlike the wayward actions of girls in New Order teen-flick films - actions that were corrected and realigned with their parent’s values – in A2DC the girls’ cruelty is left unchecked. The callous behaviour of this group of popular female students towards the nerds is portrayed as normal and typical, needing neither rebuke nor reform.

But is this change in attitude towards Cinta’s onscreen antics and those of her Suharto-era predecessors evidence of gender empowerment in Indonesian film? A2DC itself implies not.

Fashionista sister

Clearly, A2DC celebrates girl culture. Much of the film is concerned with the main interests of teenage girls and the trends they follow. And the narrative focuses squarely on the friendships and relationships of Cinta and her friends.

Prominent throughout the film are the four girlie codes: romance; personal and domestic life; fashion and beauty; and, of course, popular music. Central to each character’s development are their relationships with peers and family, and their quest for love.

The beauty of Indonesia’s sweetheart, Dian Sastrowardoyo (Cinta), and her girlfriends is always centre screen. Fashion and beauty are central to the lipstick lives of this sisterhood.

But is a celebration of girl power all there is in this film? A careful viewing suggests that Cinta’s power is flimsy and masks a disturbing comment on women’s social position.

The sugary focus on appearance disguises a sinister message. In beautifying themselves, these girls nurture the qualities society expects them to act out in their adulthood. Self-decoration advertises the girls’ attentive, nurturing qualities. They pamper and powder in preparation for their futures as carers to their children, husband and home. Like their mothers before them, Cinta and her friends unwittingly acquiesce to predetermined roles of womanhood.

A power play

Cinta’s relationship with Rangga also explores the social position of women. Before Cinta meets Rangga, we see her as a girl who stands out from the crowd. She is able to rule her friends and the boys who adore her.

Rangga, however, challenges Cinta’s accepted dominant position. He swiftly defeats Cinta in the poetry competition, is indifferent to her on their first meeting and is prepared to disagree with Cinta. Unlike her other friends, he does not go along with whatever she wants. Rangga irritates and titillates Cinta and it is his difference to the other boys that is the basis for her attraction to him.

Cinta’s assertive, confident nature is a challenge to the masculine power that Rangga wields. Rangga’s challenge and eventual control of Cinta restores the social order and, once more, men reign supreme.

The film suggests that to be a good woman and to find a good man, a girl must submit to male primacy. It also implies that Cinta’s attraction to Rangga is really about a desire to conform. The message is women must take, indeed, happily accept, subordinate positions in their relationships with men. In this system, love is the reward given to women who conform to male authority.

Since its release, A2DC has inspired a flurry of production in the chick-flick-teen-pic genre. Films such as Eifel I’m in Love, Biarkan Bintang Menari (Let the Stars Dance) and Virgin have tried, with varying degrees of success, to cash in on the mass youth audience discovered by Cinta and her friends. This new cinematic tradition is a mixed blessing. Having chic girls strut across the screen is certainly a step in the right direction. Yet, Cinta’s eventual deference to Rangga’s dominance shows young women still have a long way to come in Indonesian film.

Hapsari Sulistyani (hapsarisulistyani@yahoo.com) is a lecturer at Diponegoro University, Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 85: Jan-Mar 2006

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