Indonesia’s problem of ‘proper’ masculinity

On 3 January 2024, the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI), the state agency authorised to oversee broadcast television content in Indonesia, issued a warning to Ivan Gunawan, a prominent male Indonesian fashion designer. The warning was prompted by his perceived feminine appearance (kewanitaan) on the Brownis variety show on a leading TV station, Trans TV.

Both Brownis and Trans TV were reprimand for what the KPI said was a violation of the 2012 Broadcasting Code of Conduct and Program Standards. As per the regulation, the KPI prohibits the normalisation of men dressing, grooming, and waving (melambai) like women.

In 2016, the KPI also established KPI Circular Letter Number 203/K/KPI/02/2016, which prohibited the normalisation of men appearing as women on TV, something which it claims is a violation of ethics and norms of courtesy, decency, and morality associated with Eastern culture (budaya ketimuran). The KPI believes that men who present themselves as women potentially have a negative influence on children.

The reprimand of Gunawan for adopting a stereotypically feminine appearance highlights a significant issue in how authorities perceive masculinity. It suggests an ingrained view of men aligned with the concept of hegemonic masculinity.

In the Indonesian context, this concept was strongly emphasised during the New Order through the construct of “Bapakisme.” This ideology distinctly separated gender roles, portraying men as providers, distant from domestic activities, and not affectionate, while women are considered to solely belong to the domestic realm and serve as companions to men (konco wingking) — assumptions from which Julia Suryakusuma’s drew her concept of “State Ibuisme”.

On the flip side, in early modern Indonesia, men who presented themselves in a feminine manner received a certain level of “acceptance” on TV and in other media. For instance, in 1979, Tessy, a male member of a comedic group called Srimulat who dressed as a woman, earned a spot on TV. The Indonesian Queer Archive, a project dedicated to preserving and celebrating materials on the lives of queer individuals in Indonesia, has also made an extraordinary effort by showcasing films like “Lenong Rumpi,” “Jang Djatuh di Kaki Lelaki,” and “Remaja di Lampu Merah” that clearly depict gender diversity representation on the silver screen. In contemporary Indonesia, Aming in Extravaganza, Aziz Gagap in Opera Van Java, and Olga Syahputra in Dahsyat also receive a certain level of acceptance to express feminine appearances.

However, even though they receive certain acceptance and celebration, it’s important to acknowledge that these entertainers still face discrimination. Their representation is often seen as jokes (becandaan) and objects of mockery (olok-olokan), failing to capture the full breadth of who they are.

A new wave of LGBT panic?

Fair and comprehensive representation for diverse expressions of gender in popular media, including TV, remains crucial.

Yet the recent “cancellation” of Ivan Gunawan for violation of KPI bans on male “femininity” marks another phase of the LGBT panic that has lent justification to the 2016 KPI circular letter on “proper” gender presentation on broadcast media. In 2018, Trans TV’s Brownis Tonight variety show received a warning from KPI for discussing transgender issues, as it was considered to have the potential to encourage children and teenagers to normalise inappropriate LGBT behaviours.

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In 2021, five Indonesian TV stations—RCTI, Indosiar, FTV, SCTV, and Trans 7—were cautioned by KPI for airing advertisements featuring men dressing and speaking like women, which was deemed inconsistent with moral values. In the same year, the KPI chapter in West Sumatra province reinforced the 2016 KPI regulation to prohibit LGBT-related content, interpreting it as men appearing feminine on television. In 2023, the Pagi-Pagi Ambyar show also received a warning from KPI for broadcasting an interview with Lucinta Luna, a popular Indonesian transgender woman, and with her boyfriend.

Beyond the LGBT panic, censorship is also used as moral justification to discipline and regulate bodily expression in general. This rationale aligns with Gunawan’s cancellation: grounded in morality and the concern that it might have a negative influence on children. They have, at times, strangely censored kissing scenes in Shaun the Sheep; a female swimming athlete; and swimsuits in a Doraemon cartoon.

Gunawan’s cancellation is not a new wave of LGBT panic but rather another instance of a sustained period of official homophobia, as consideration of the broader social and political context of Indonesia shows. In 2016 — when the KPI published the circular letter that marked a ramping up of its policing of expressions of gender diversity — sentiments of marginalisation against the LGBT community in Indonesia were intensifying simultaneously.

As the research of Hendry Yulius Wijaya shows, during that period numerous Indonesian officials openly expressed negative opinions about the LGBT community. Then defence minister Ryamizard Ryacudu asserted that the LGBT movement was part of a “proxy war” that posed a threat to national security. Indonesia’s presidential spokesperson, Johan Budi, also declared that there was no room for LGBT groups in Indonesia. In the same year, the then minister of social affairs, Kofifah Indar Parawangsa, cautioned the public about the dangers of the LGBT group, particularly for children.

Islamic conservatism

When it comes to censorship, KPI is not acting alone. It is also influenced by the growing Islamic conservatism that surfaced in Indonesia’s post-reformasi period. Conservative Islamic groups frequently target the LGBT community, employing moral justifications to rally their political interests. For example, the Family Love Alliance (Aliansi Cinta Keluarga/AILA), a group of urban middle-class mothers, suggested amending the Indonesian Criminal Code in 2016 to criminalise same-sex relations and extramarital sexual relationships.

Some claim that conservatism on TV is growing due to the high viewership of Islamic-themed programs, such as “Mamah dan Aa” (Mom and Bro), “Islam itu Indah” (Islam is Beautiful), and Islamic-oriented soap opera (sinetron) “Tukang Bubur Naik Haji” (Porridge Seller Goes on Haj). I would argue that the growing interest in religious content does not guarantee the simultaneous growth of conservatism — it is an expression of their religious piety, which is not necessarily synonymous with conservatism.

Okky Madasari’s argument about how political Ibu-Ibu (mothers) contribute to the censorship of freedom of expression, including issues related to gender diversity, makes sense to me. Despite Ibuhood no longer being exclusively associated with domestic roles, mothers are now actively involved in politics.

However, despite this greater engagement in political life, they also participate in politics by submitting various petitions and organising boycotts to censor TV shows deemed immoral. One example was the boycott against Blackpink, a South Korean girl band, because they wore mini-skirts, and the comic edition of a translation of a sexual education handbook, WHY: Pubertas, which was considered as promoting gender minorities.

Building an inclusive masculinity

Eric Anderson’s idea of inclusive masculinity, which discusses various kinds of masculine expression, is important to be promoted in order to counter the “official” masculinity construction constructed by the state and society in general.

Ivan Gunawan is well aware that his feminine expression on TV is a part of his freedom of expression and does not undermine his status as a man. Instead of conforming to the expectations of the KPI by altering his style as a man, Gunawan chose to bid farewell to the Brownis show and set out on a different path for his future career after entertaining the audience for six years.

He also Top of FormBottom of Formdefended himself by asserting that he is a fashion designer and working in the creative industry. His self-expression on television is an integral part of his creativity and shouldn’t be constrained. Gunawan is acutely aware that what occurred represents a limitation on his expression. He also cautioned his followers against judging him solely based on his appearance, questioning, “Is your prayer (shalat) better than mine? Is your charity (sedekah) more-sincere than mine?” In a social media response to the official KPI posting on his case, Gunawan fought back by saying, “Why don’t you criticise Haji Roma Irama who performs wearing a headscarf and high-heeled shoes?” He added, “Have you not seen a man wearing a headband at a TV station’s anniversary event?”

The problem in the idea of ”proper” masculinity is risky because it overlooks the fact that masculinity, and gender in general, is fluid and a construction that is not final — and in Indonesia is often shaped by the pressure from conservative Islamic groups. What is considered masculine here, may not be viewed as a form of masculinity elsewhere. A singular view of masculinity is also perilous as it has the potential to segregate gender roles and expressions, jeopardising efforts to achieve gender equality.

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