Author of Julia's Jihad
Are there some movie characters you love to hate, e.g. Maleficent, the Joker, Darth Vader? After all, antagonistic characters are what make the protagonist look good right?
Indonesian netizens are currently transfixed by one such character, Bu Tejo, from the 32-minute short film Tilik. First released in 2018, the producers uploaded it on YouTube on Aug. 17 this year. It went viral, became a trending topic on Twitter, tweeted 28,000 times, while #BuTejo was tweeted over 61,000 times. In less than a week since it was first uploaded on YouTube, it had been viewed more than 5.2 million times.
The story line: A group of hijab-wearing emak-emak (housewives) from a village in Bantul near Yogyakarta, ride in the back of an open truck to visit their Bu Lurah (female subdistrict head) who is sick in hospital (see Short film Tilik grabs netizen’s attention with ‘ghibah’, ‘emak-emak’, The Jakarta Post, Aug. 22). The title of the film means “to visit” in Javanese.
During the ride, the women gossip. Bu Tejo leads by casting doubts about Dian, a young, single attractive female office worker, insinuating that she is an immoral woman. When one of the other women in the truck chimes in and says that she saw Dian with a middle-aged man (assumed to be her sugar daddy), it encourages Bu Tejo to provide more “proof” that Dian is a bad woman by saying that she saw Dian on the internet in revealing, compromising poses. After all, the internet doesn’t lie, does it?
Another character, Yu Ning, Bu Tejo’s antagonist, feels uncomfortable with Bu Tejo’s badmouthing Dian, and tries to tell the latter to watch what she says. They end up arguing.
When they finally reach their destination, they discover that they cannot visit the Bu Lurah as she is still in intensive care. By chance they meet the Dian that Bu Tejo had been gossiping about, and she is with an older man, which is taken by the women as confirmation of Bu Tejo’s suspicions about her.
It is curious how such a film like Tilik could go viral, given there is nothing exceptional about it. According to Kevin Alloca in a 2012 TED talk, it has to do with the presence of a tastemaker, unexpectedness and community participation. The “tastemaker” is the endorsement of well-known film makers such as Joko Anwar and Ernest Prakasa; the unexpectedness is possibly the ending, and participation is of course all the views, reviews and discussions about the film.
Many people have praised it as being so realistic, the acting is very natural and many can identify with the characters, especially Bu Tejo. It’s true that there is often a Bu Tejo in our midst.
Feminist activists however, have tended to view the film in a negative light, saying it reinforces gender stereotypes. For example Faiza Mardzoeki, a feminist playwright, said “it stereotypes women negatively […] it does so in a conceptually deliberate way, clearly taken from a very male perspective: the camera angles, big close ups of the women’s faces, with the aim of highlighting their character defects”. Without realizing it, the film director is actually putting women down.
Faiza’s observation is spot on about the way the camera constantly focuses on the cynical, gossipy facial expressions of Bu Tejo. Faiza adds that the technique adopted in Tilik reminds her of how Gerwani women were depicted in the New Order propaganda film G30S/PKI as being evil. Gerwani was the women’s wing of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), which was annihilated in 1965 after the alleged Communist coup, which many academics believe was actually an internal Army coup. The portrayal of the Gerwani was one of the ways by which the Army and later the New Order regime, discredited the PKI.
If the portrayal of women in Tilik is “liked” by so many, perhaps the majority of viewers, what does that say about Indonesian society? It certainly implies that in our collective consciousness, we do not respect women. In fact, it is almost as if we “idealize” women like Bu Tejo, who I find extremely annoying and grating on the nerves. Sure, it is a tribute to her acting that she becomes the character that you love to hate. But at a subconscious level, it is also an endorsement of the stereotype.
And why are the women traveling in a truck? Symbolically, does this mean that women are seen as cattle or objects that can be trucked around?
What nobody seems to mention also is the fact that all the women are wearing the hijab, the Islamic headdress. If this film were made 20 years ago, this would not have been the case.
There is a common consensus that Muslim attire is the indication of a good woman. How shallow, naïve and wrong is that? Bu Tejo is a case in point, but there are many other real women, who engage in corruption and other illegal acts, while wearing the hijab. There are women who have never worn a hijab, who because they want to run for office, suddenly start wearing one. How hypocritical and politically expedient! Even worse, is the fact that making women wear the hijab is one of the ways that Islamic fundamentalism attempts to encroach on democratic space in Indonesia.
The fact that a film like Tilik has gone viral should make us all very worried about our collective sanity, the future of Islam, Pancasila and the Indonesian Constitution.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.