It has been curious to see how a seemingly apolitical and nonideological — therefore quite harmless — film like Tilik has sparked a heated controversy, especially on social media, after it was uploaded to YouTube last month.
The film has drawn ire from all four directions of the political and economic compass, so much so that somebody shared a tongue-in-cheek yet serious four-quadrant diagram breaking down the four types of outrage on WhatsApp. The diagram’s X axis represents the spectrum of economic beliefs from far left to far right and the Y axis represents the spectrum of political beliefs from authoritarian to libertarian.
If you are a left-wing authoritarian, you will perceive the film as insulting to villagers; if you are a right-wing authoritarian you will deem it as an offense to women who wear the hijab, even to Islam.
Meanwhile, a right-wing libertarian will believe the film is an attack on the free market because it was financed by the regional government and a leftwing libertarian will slam the film for reproducing negative stereotypes about women.
In this article, I seek to criticize the left-wing libertarian view of the film and use Julia Suryakusuma’s article “‘Tilik’, sexist stereotypes and our collective insanity”, which appeared in The Jakarta Post on Sept. 16, as a jumping off point.
Julia, as well as other film critics with feminist leanings such as Intan Paramaditha, tends to view the film as reproducing negative stereotypes about women as gossipers.
Well, stereotypes do contain some kernels of truth. Evolutionary psychologist Anne Campbell in her 2013 book A Mind of Her Own: the Evolutionary Psychology of Women debunks feminists’ ideas that women are inherently more peaceful and less violent than men.
Some 20 years earlier, feminist author Naomi Wolf also debunked this postulation in her 1994 book Fire with Fire, asserting that women are as capable of committing violence as men.
American psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath, who specializes in human conflicts and political polarization, asserts that the only reason women have not been masters of war as yet is because they simply do not have access to weaponry (yet, hello, have we forgotten about what former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi or former United States state secretary Hillary Clinton have done?).
Aggression, in its various shapes and forms, is part of human nature. Both men and women possess the potential to act brutally toward each other. Yet, societies are more punitive toward women who are physically aggressive than toward men who behave similarly. Therefore, to channel their aggression, women often use the backdoor, namely passive-aggressive behavior, which manifests itself in gossiping.
This is not to say that men do not love to gossip as well. A shameful truth: yes, we also like to indulge in gossip. Yet, by questioning why the film puts so much emphasis on women who gossip, Julia has taken the film’s content out of its sociological context.
The film’s characters are from a Yogyakarta village. People who live in villages, which have a more communal characteristic, can attest to just how much their residents love to gossip about their neighbors.
A 2019 Stanford University paper titled “Using Gossips To Spread Information: Theory and Evidence from Two Randomized Controlled Trials” by Abhijit Banerjee, Arun G. Chandrasekhar, Esther Duflo and Matthew O. Jackson reveals that gossiping is also a method human beings use to safeguard against each other’s behaviors.
By exchanging stories through gossiping, people can detect potential antisocial behaviors that can disrupt order and stop the potential disruption in its tracks. People who live in small villages, who do not enjoy the protection of security guards, often rely on this form of activity.
Well, speaking of policing, patriarchy has been our silent and stealthy teacher for centuries, having turned men and women alike into its moral police agents. We can easily see how women become the harshest moral police agents of their fellow women whom they perceive as failing to conform to patriarchal societal norms.
Tilik is not the only film to address this. Look at Chonie Prysilia and Hizkia Subiyantoro’s 2020 animated documentary K0s0ng (No One Inside), which addresses pressures on women to have biological children, for example. This is not sexist; this is just a mirror image of how our society behaves.
But again, village men gossip too, why not portray their behavior as well? Look: this is where the film actually portrays women positively. The women are on their way to visit the sick female subdistrict head. Women are socialized to engage in more prosocial behavior and nurturing than men.
It would be very bizarre to see a group of men riding in a truck to visit the ailing woman. Again: context, context, context.
Finally, a class bubble has caused many to fail to see just how the film celebrates the strength of village women, as depicted in a scene where they taunt a corrupt traffic policeman so as to reach the hospital on time.
As a public minivan passenger, I have to thank these women for saving my life on many occasions. They are fierce enough to call minivan drivers out for their reckless behavior when no men, including myself, dare to do so.
For instance, while traveling in a minivan in Bekasi, West Java, I — along with other passengers, including men — was saved from being crushed by a train when a woman passenger yelled and beat the shoulder of the minivan driver who was about to cross the railway when the red light and alarm signals were already on.
Why has Tilik been so politicized? First, our political climate, which has become highly polarized because of social media, seems to force everyone to draw a political line on everything, including nonideological and apolitical matters.
Second, cinematically the film is too literal, capable of drawing strong visceral reactions from its viewers.
All in all, let us just depoliticize Tilik and keep our emotional reactivity in check. Still, I would like to offer a caveat: my male privileges might cause me to turn a blind eye to some of the feminists’ concerns in my analysis here.
Staff writer at The Jakarta Post
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.