Writer of Coming Out and a lecturer of gender and sexuality studies
In the early 2000s, Dangdut singer Inul Daratista provoked controversy and national debate on women’s bodies, sexuality and censorship. Her signature “drilling” dance (goyang ngebor) was considered by the Indonesian Ulema Council [MUI) as being against Islamic values and they consequently prohibited her from performing in Yogyakarta, urging political parties not to allow Inul to perform at election campaigns. The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) condemned Inul’s performances as detrimental to the moral fiber of the nation and its youth. Further denunciation came from the king of Dangdut, Rhoma Irama, who was popular for his religiously infused music and films.
Andrew N. Wientraub, in Dangdut Stories ( 2010 ), signifies Inul’s body as a site for analyzing the relationship between democracy, Islam, censorship, pornography and violence against women. It is hardly surprising that not long after the Inul phenomenon, the draft anti-pornography bill was officially passed and enforced.
Despite the ubiquity, popularity and commercialization of Dangdut music, it unfortunately still remains understudied, in particular with relation to how gender and sexuality are rearticulated and situated within the process of production of meaning.
In his unpublished thesis entitled Dangdut: Indonesian Popular Music – Gender and Performance ( 1995 ), Ceres E. Pioquinto argues that in spite of the putative objectification of their bodies, the female performers actively derived satisfaction and a sense of liberation from dancing in a male-dominated space. Some performers admitted that they felt proud when the audience admired their mini-skirt clad bodies. Female Dangdut performers often embody stereotypes of vulgar village women. This stereotype is also debunked by popular Dangdut female singers, who inhibit the music industry with a new strategy: simultaneously being glamorous and sexually arousing.
Lyrics are also essential in Dangdut music. Wientraub asserts that Dangdut not only gives people the language to say things, but also a style to express them and the words to represent difficult sentiments. Furthermore, Dangdut music likewise creatively invents and introduces new terms, which often become popular in daily conversations, for example janda bodong (unofficial widow) and belah duren (splitting a durian).
Within the purview of commercialization and objectification, Dangdut singers actively negotiate their subjectivities and desires, practically refiguring their own pleasures and desires on stage. The gaze of the male audiences signals the mutability of subject-object distinction. Women are commercially and sexually objectified, but at the same time also become subject by alluring heterosexual men to their desires. Trio Macan’s Buka Sitik Joss [Open It A Bit] vividly illustrates female Dangdut singers’ subjectivities – since male audiences in Dangdut concerts usually shout to the singers to “open their outfits a bit”. Trio Macan exposes their perversity and voyeurism and proudly confirms confidence in their bodies.
Challenging gender stereotype
Domestic issues often prevail in Dangdut songs, such as unhappy marriages, adulterous husbands, broken-hearted women, secret love affairs, as well as sexual desires and longing. In State Ibuism ( 2010 ), Julia Suryakusuma highlights that the state in the Suharto regime perpetuated the domestication of women by associating their gender roles with their destiny (kodrat perempuan) of motherhood and husband’s partner. This gender-belief system still persists in the Reformation era, revitalized by Islamic fundamentalist teachings.
Repression incites creative resistance, as female Dangdut singers often employ domestic or everyday terms to metaphorically disguise sexual meanings.
Inul’s Dikocok-Kocok (Shake It) works on many interpretative levels, as Weintraub notes. One interpretation is of a regular social gathering (arisan), in which a container filled with numbers written on pieces of paper is shaken to determine the winner. However, as an assertive and strong woman, Inul demands loyalty and does not want to be treated like the numbers in the container, waiting for her turn among other girls for his love. She sings, “I don’t want my love to be shaken up [dikocok-kocok]”, while she screams sensuously on the last line, as if successfully rubbing a man’s penis until he ejaculates. Furthermore, kocok-kocok (shake it) also refers to male masturbation – a sexualized meaning attached to the song that completes with Inul’s loud and sensuous scream, as though a female orgasm during sexual intercourse.
A similar strategy can be found in Julia Perez’s Belah Duren [Splitting Durian], in which intercourse is associated with the metaphor splitting durian. The sexualization of durian is used to indicate female sexual desire in the song, “Everybody must like splitting durian/ especially on their wedding night,” (Semua orang pasti suka belah duren/ apalagi malam pengantin). Julia unashamedly declares that female genitalia are the amazing durian that can make men addicted – something that is almost unspeakable due to existing cultural taboos surrounding female sexuality. Julia is challenging the prevailing hypocrisy of sex, pinpointing that everyone likes sex, just as everyone likes eating durian.
In Aku Rapopo (I am okay), Julia is not afraid to demand a divorce from her husband who likes jajan (buying sex). While jajan actually refers to the habit of buying snacks, it also refers to a man’s habit of buying sex. By associating sex with snacks in the term jajan, the song indicates the normalization of men’s promiscuous sexuality. Julia bravely discloses this habit and shows women’s assertiveness in demanding divorce. She sings in the refrain, signaling female independency, “I am all right, don’t come back again…”
Women are often stereotyped as passive and asexual. In marriage, women are constructed to serve men and obey their words and wishes. However, in Janda Bodong (Unofficial Widow), Riana Oces sings about a woman left by her husband because of her refusal to accept a polygamous marriage. Riana shows the dark side of polygamy by clearly declaring herself as “a victim of polygamy… a victim of a man’s ego.” As many justify polygamy through religious texts, Riana’s Janda Bodong voices women’s unhappiness with polygamous marriages, which they deem unfair.
Female sexual desires can be also found explicitly in the song Jablay, which stands for jarang dibelai (rarely caressed by men). Sung by Titi Kamal, the song is the confession of a woman rarely caressed by her partner, who left her for another woman. By associating herself as jablay, she signifies female sexual desires – that women also need and want to be caressed (belaian).
In summary, analyzing female Dangdut singers generates an extraordinary variety of strategies and portrayals of female sexual desire within the commercialization and objectification of their bodies in the Dangdut industry. However, as they exert and negotiate the resistance within this confinement, their bodies, performances and lyrics also signify the challenges against the existing construction of female sexuality. An allegedly simple and underclass music, it articulates desires and reconfigures the mutability of subject-object in a creative way.
The writer, who obtained his Master’s in public policy from the National University of Singapore, is the writer of Coming Out and a lecturer of gender and sexuality studies.
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