Tilik (The Visit, 2018), a short movie directed by Wahyu Agung Prasetyo, is a viral sensation in Indonesia. Within two weeks of being posted on YouTube, it attracted more than 20 million views.
The film follows a group of village women taking a trip to the city on the back of a truck to visit their female village head in hospital. During the journey, the women gossip about Dian, a pretty young woman in the village.
Tilik has stirred a public debate not only around representation of women and femininity but also around feminism in general. A number of feminists, including Intan Paramaditha and Feby Indirani, criticised the film for reinforcing negative stereotypes of women: that they are gossipers and annoyingly chatty, spread hoaxes, and lack media literacy.
Paramaditha, for example, invited her followers to situate the feminine stereotyping in the film in the larger context of cultural production, in which gender perspectives are almost absent. Feminist criticism of the film unfortunately turned into a heated, in some cases ugly, public debate involving feminists, film critics, and social media users. Even among feminists, views were divided on the film’s representation of gender.
The debate about Tilik is indicative of the unresolved crisis in Indonesia’s gender order. In my previous research on representations of ideal masculinities in Indonesia, I suggested that 2000-2014 was a vital period marked by a crisis in the gender order. During this period, ideological battles to secure hegemonic gender ideals intensified on various fronts, including cinema.
Six years on, the crisis remains unresolved, as the public debate stirred by Tilik demonstrates. This is indicated, on one hand, by the development of feminist film criticism and efforts to integrate gender perspectives into filmmaking, as a force to challenge stereotypical cinematic depictions of gender. And on the other hand, the debate is driven by a strong backlash attempting to preserve the status quo pattern of gender relations.
Gender order crisis is a concept in gender studies explaining processes of change in the pattern of gender relations. At the time of crisis, a gender order can be destroyed or restored by the outcome of the crisis.
Feminism has been an important force provoking changes in Indonesia’s “official” gender order, which centres on the family principle. The authoritarian New Order regime provided important institutional support to the maintenance of the official gender order. It did so by, for example, institutionalising men’s and women’s gender roles in the 1974 Marriage Law and supporting institutions that reinforced women’s reproductive role, like Dharma Wanita and the Family Welfare Movement (PKK).
Movements to advance women’s status and rights, motivated by feminist ideas, were allowed to develop only to a limited extent. For example, the regime facilitated the establishment of a junior ministry for women’s affairs in the late 1970s, following global pressure to promote women’s roles in state governance and politics. But the ministry had little power and a small budget.
When Soeharto’s authoritarian regime finally fell, state restrictions on feminist movements lessened. Feminism and its supporters become highly visible and stronger in post-authoritarian Indonesia. Feminists such as Musdah Mulia and Lies Marcoes Natsir were at the forefront of public debate surrounding Megawati Soekarnoputri’s rise to presidency and the affirmative action policy of a 30% quota for female candidates in elections.
Feminists have been instrumental in transforming the legal architecture, too, for example in the formulation and implementation of Law No. 23 of 2004 on the Elimination of Domestic Violence, and in advocacy for the gender equality and elimination of sexual violence bills.
In cinema, feminist filmmakers such as Nia Dinata and Mouly Surya have challenged masculine perspectives in filmmaking and representations of gender on the silver screen. Feminist film criticism, led by notable figures like Intan Paramadhita and Novi Kurnia, has also become as a strong force in raising awareness of gender perspectives and equality in cinema.
But the increasing visibility and significance of feminism has not been without contest. Ideological contestation surrounding gender relations has become extremely heated in post-authoritarian Indonesia. For example, growing Islamisation has fostered the development of Muslim feminist networks, while also posing challenges to the struggle for gender equality. Islamic discourse is often used to argue against laws aiming for gender equality and elimination of gender-based violence.
In cinema, too, Islamic discourse, among others, has been used to attack films that are critical of conventional gender relations, such as Nia Dinata’s Arisan! (2003), and Hanung Bramantyo’s Perempuan Berkalung Sorban (2009).
The criticism of Tilik offered by feminist film critics, and the backlash against them and feminism in general, is part of this gender order crisis. While feminist film critics attempted to inspire changes in Indonesian cinema and the broader cultural landscape, their ideas were criticised as foreign, elitist or unsuitable for Indonesia. They were accused of being social justice warriors and of ruining the fun of film consumption.
In several cases, the backlash against feminist film critics devolved into ad hominem attacks and catcalling. Unfortunately, such attacks are common against feminists on social media, especially those who vocally and critically engage with issues of gender inequality and gender-based violence. For example, Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) politician Tsamara Amani has repeatedly been subject to the same treatment when she has posted support for gender equality and the bill on the elimination of sexual violence.
Feminists and their opponents are engaged in a fierce battle for public opinion. Feminists are trying to inspire changes to realise gender equality, while their opponents attempt to preserve the established gender order. Advances in information and communication technology have made these ideological battles more visible and able to generate more extensive public engagement.
By placing the public debate around Tilik in the context of the gender order crisis, we can see that Indonesia is undergoing a critical period of social change. The deeply rooted pattern of gender relations fortified by the New Order is no longer taken for granted, despite its continued dominance. The official gender ideals projected by the state are being strongly challenged by emerging alternatives.
However, as the gender order crisis is unresolved, we are yet to see whether the existing gender order will be fundamentally transformed. What is certain, however, is Tilik will not be the last film to spark controversy for its depiction of gender relations.