Intersections: Fighting Bodies: The Construction of the Female Body in an Indonesian Film Serial
Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 19, February 2009

Fighting Bodies:
The Construction of the Female Body
in an Indonesian Television Serial[1]

Sri Kusumo Habsari
  1. Feminist scholars have been drawn to analyse the construction of female action heroes in film and on television. These characters take up space that is usually occupied by male heroes. Their image contradicts normative codes of femininity and poses a challenge to women's conventional social roles, so it is argued. Most critics of female action heroes focus on the representation of female bodies and female power in Western popular culture. I want to explore the question of what happens when the action heroine is constructed in a non-Western culture. This article focuses on Misteri Gunung Merapi,[2] a popular Indonesian sinetron.[3]
  2. Misteri Gunung Merapi falls into the action genre.[4] This sinetron presents to its audience an imaginary world set in a past time in Java where all people were able to fight and all problems were solved through fighting. This sinetron basically tells a story of an evil and powerful witch woman, Mak Lampir, who attempts to spread evil among human beings. Her efforts are opposed by Sembara, a sacred hero. Mak Lampir is helped by a group of powerful men and women willing to fight and so is Sembara. At a glance this sinetron is like a Javanese traditional performance, kethoprak, performed on television. Although fighting women have been part of traditional performance, they have not been dominant and have mainly functioned to acknowledge the existence of female heroes in both the historical and mythical past. To some extent, Misteri Gunung Merapi has followed the tradition of Chinese wuxia (martial arts) television series, which are popular in Indonesia, especially in the dominance of its representation of fighting women.[5]
  3. Misteri Gunung Merapi has been produced since 1998, after the fall of the New Order era. As Jusuf Antariksawan explains, 'The ratings in its first episode stood at 21 percent and its shares were 50 percent meaning 50 percent of all viewers at that particular time tuned in to the program.' Since then, 'it has always been among the five top-rated programs.'[6] The lure of the sinetron, like any other sinetron laga, is in its representation of historical figures, such as Sultan Patah and Sultan Agung, and mythical figures, such as Nyi Rara Kidul and Nyi Blorong, combined with fictional characters, such as in this case including Farida, Mardian, Lindu Aji, Mayang Sari, Pitaloka, Banuseta as well as Mak Lampir and Sembara and many others. Although the characteristic of the sinetron kolosal laga is to present stories of the mythical past, most of the dominant characters in the sinetron are performed by actors and actresses with Eurasian facial features.
  4. The idea of gender and body is distinctive in every culture. It also changes over time. One interesting aspect of Misteri Gunung Merapi is the way it portrays an equal male and female exercise of supernatural power. Males and females have the same access to supernatural power and the ability to master and exercise it is determined by their gifted talent, not by their gender. This phenomenon raises questions about gender and the body in Indonesian culture and how it is that the sinetron can portray powerful men and women equally. How does the sinetron imagine the bodies of female fighters for Indonesian audiences of which the majority are Muslim? How is traditional Javanese theatrical performance maintained to speak to the diverse audiences in multi-cultural Indonesia? How does this Indonesian construction of the female body compare to the Hollywood and Chinese action-adventure traditions? The construction of active female figures certainly cannot be separated from the context from which they have emerged because one of the keys to producing successful entertainment is the ability to produce familiar narratives and values for viewers. Like any other entertainment product, this sinetron does not exist in a vacuum. It reflects the social and cultural situation of the time of its production, although as if through a cracked mirror. This article presents a close analysis of Misteri Gunung Merapi, via a consideration of the feminist literature about fighting women on both Hollywood and Chinese screens, as an example of the gender politics of popular culture in post New Order Indonesia.

    Problems in representing fighting women in Western and Asian cinema and TV
  5. In her groundbreaking article 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,' Laura Mulvey argued that the narrative structure of Hollywood classical cinema positions the male character as active and powerful while the woman is the object of desire for the male characters. Through the three levels of cinematic gaze—the camera's, the character's and the spectator's—women are established as 'to-be-looked-at'.[7] But Yvonne Tasker has disagreed with Mulvey's idea of the 'active/passive division of labour' in relation to action-adventure cinema because both male and female figures are subjects in the narrative as well as objects of spectacle.[8]
  6. The hero of action cinema, according to Dawn Heinecken, is presented as a figure that is able to control his own body and to 'overcome all physical suffering.'[9] The spectacle of the male body in terms of his scars and wounds shows that the body is actually vulnerable but the hero conveys the power because of his ability to control his pain. 'The hardness of the hero's body works to define him —as man, as master over his environment.' By contrast the female body is defined traditionally as passive, soft and weak with a limited capacity for physical activity.[10]
  7. Because impenetrable hard bodies are required of heroes, the representation of the female hero becomes problematic in Western action-adventure cinema and TV series. Fara Buttsworth asks the question, 'can the ultimate girl be the ultimate warrior?'[11] because the woman warrior contradicts the traits and qualities of 'softness, curves, passivity, intuition, indecisiveness, and powerlessness' which conventionally belong to women and femininity.[12] Molly Haskell has argued that it is 'precisely because women have traditionally been more peace-loving than men [that] it's more ambiguous and more of a story when they do take up arms or pursue an enemy into dangerous territory.'[13]
  8. According to Tasker, the emergence of the action heroine is partly a response to the criticism of images of gendered identity raised by Mulvey and other feminist scholars. In her study of Hollywood action cinema from the 1970s to the 1990s, Tasker found that representations of the action heroine were marked by 'ambiguities of identities and desires.' In her opinion, 'this blurring of categories is crucial to understanding the play of femininity and masculinity over the bodies of male and female characters, a process that has been inflected significantly in the action cinema of recent years.'[14] The blurring of gender categories emerges as a central concern of feminist critics of action-adventure.
  9. A similar question in relation to 'the compatibility of beauty and power, femininity and violence, and desire and desirability' is also raised by feminist scholars studying the Chinese martial art genre, where action heroines have traditionally been more prominent than in the West.[15] Wendy Arons comments that 'the heroine's martial arts skills are at odds with her yearning to be accepted in her community as a desirable woman.'[16] Nevertheless, most warrior women are sword players albeit in the context of an emphasis on myth and magic. Lenuta Guikin has argued that the possibility of equal representation between women and men in Chinese martial arts cinema is caused by the different fighting techniques of Asian martial arts, which stress the speed of movement rather than the Western stress on the weight of the blow.[17] In line with Guikin, Aaron Anderson has asserted that the kinaesthetic movements in martial arts 'are not easily divided into masculine and feminine, fight and dance.'[18] With actions which are not merely physical, but depend on the interaction of body and mind, women have equal capacity to be action heroes, and even to be more powerful than men, in some martial art stories. As Catherine Jean Gomes states, 'femininity finds a voice of expression in martial arts cinema.'[19]
  10. The construction of the male hero and the female hero in Chinese cinema is different from that in Western cinema. Women are, however, still portrayed as under pressure to resolve a conflict between their 'martial art skills and femininity.' As Leon Hunt asserts, 'No matter how strong you are…you still have to settle down ...Go and get married.'[20] These examples suggest that although powerful women are accepted they are encouraged to embody the values of domesticity as well. In contrast, male heroes in kung fu are portrayed as 'both patriotic and patrilineal' and 'dealing with History.'[21]
  11. Arons has noted that 'the kung fu genre as a whole is rather conservative…it tends to represent violent women in patterned ways.'[22] The question of the compatibility between femininity and violence is often represented through, for example, 'the attractiveness of the fighting woman, framing her as a plain but earnest sidekick in contrast to the male hero's beautiful but helpless love interest.'[23] However, some 'explicitly turn the fighting woman into a sex object and use martial artistry to exploit the female body.'[24] Some films which are categorised as 'fantasy-action subgenre' in fact 'subvert gender norms by positing a mythical world in which gender is fluid and women can accrue supernatural powers.'[25] Alternatively, martial arts when combined with the comedy genre can perform a 'reversing [of] stereotypical gender roles or playing with established norms of behaviour between sexes.' A hero, for example, may think he 'comes to the rescue of a woman he thinks helpless, only to watch as she capably defends herself.'[26] Arons shows that women in kung fu films are portrayed more diversely than in Western action-adventure cinema.

    The construction of heroic female body in Misteri Gunung Merapi
  12. The problem presented by the female action heroine in both Hollywood and Asian cinema concerns the masculinised female body —the lack of fit between gender and body, when body and gendered behaviour do not correspond as they should. As a country with a predominantly Muslim population, Indonesia has applied the concept of proper manhood and womanhood through state programs and Islamic discourses pronounced through sermons.[27] There have been some contradictory trends in official views of women's active bodily performance. Both religion and the state have attacked women's involvement in the small sub-culture of body building on the grounds that it was against female biological nature. But women's involvement in martial arts culture,[28] which is much more significant, is accepted by state and religious authorities.
  13. Against this background, the construction of female fighting bodies can be negotiated and translated to fit the culture of the contemporary target audience. None of the various heroic female figures in Misteri Gunung Merapi is portrayed as physically masculinised. They exercise their martial arts skills as women, not as men in disguise. Martial arts exercises do not develop muscle bulk, so the female body does not pose the problem of becoming muscular. As well, conflict in Misteri Gunung Merapi is expressed more between supernatural powers rather than through body contact, although it is possible to use a sword as a weapon. So these female fighters do not present the 'problem' of the female warrior whose masculine characteristics have to be explained. [29] In a culture such as Java which has a tradition of female soldiers, the heroic female figure is not presented as exceptional, although the historical record shows that the female soldiers wore male clothing.[30] Their motivation to fight does not need to be explained in terms of protecting their children, as noted by both Tasker and Sherrie A. Inness in relation to Western action heroines.[31] Further, Misteri Gunung Merapi does not continue the New Order cinema tradition where, as Krishna Sen has noted, women in a war film might carry a gun but they would not shoot anybody.[32]
  14. Fighting women have had a long tradition in Javanese traditional theatre. A well-known episode in the Javanese wayang (Javanese puppet show), is the war between Srikandhi and Mustokoweni as they fight for the sacred weapon of Jamus Kalimasada.[33] This is represented in the Javanese dance, 'Srikandhi-Mustokoweni.' The male character Srikandhi is defeated in battle by Mustokoweni, the female antagonist, not by the male antagonist. But to end the story, and to restore order, Mustokoweni is defeated by Bambang Priyambodo, not in a fight but when he caresses her and proposes marriage. Compared with this wayang story, Misteri Gunung Merapi follows both the precedent of having women warriors fighting each other and women warriors fighting against men, however it does not follow the tradition of a woman warrior's loss by caress and marriage proposal. In one scene, for example, Pitaloka, the female protagonist character, is defeated by Mayang Sari, a female antagonist character. But Pitaloka is not then won over by the caresses of a male enemy. She has given her heart to Lindu Aji, the male protagonist character, and he returns Pitaloka's love.
  15. In drawing on traditional theatre conventions, the sinetron can portray female figures behaving in ways that are not freely available to women in contemporary Indonesian society. Cross-gender disguise (malih or alihan) is often used in the sinetron, as it is in wayang, as a tactic to defeat the enemy. Mustakoweni, in the wayang story, is successful in stealing the sacred weapon because she disguises herself as Gatotkaca, a male hero. Pausacker has found other stories in wayang about the transformation of women into men. When they are male, they want to abduct women: the transformation of sex is followed by a change in erotic desire.[34] In Misteri Gunung Merapi, transformation of gender identity requires supernatural power: Mak Lampir transforms herself into Datuk Larang Tapa, a male spirit, to defeat Rindi Antika, a female spirit. In an unusual disguise from male to female, Kala Gondhang transforms himself into Farida to deceive the male character Mardian. That male and female could transform into one another suggests that sexual identity in this sinetron is fluid.[35] However, in those scenes where Kala Gondhang becomes Farida, she/he runs away from Mardian's attempt at seduction, suggesting that he/she is uncomfortable in this situation of being pursued by a man. In this case, the sinetron does not follow the pattern of alihan from wayang, rather it is modified. When Kala Gondhang disguises as Farida, Kala Gondhang is still male in spirit, although the body is female.

    Performing the body: gesture and voice
  16. Looking at the representation of the body in traditional Javanese performance, we can see its influence on the gendered body as presented in Misteri Gunung Merapi. In Javanese traditional performances, there are three types of women: branyak (energetic), kenes (charming) and ruruh (refined). All are performed as feminine, whether the woman is powerful or not. The male body can be performed either as alus (refined male) or gagah (robust). As Garrett Kam explains, the refined male body gives an impression of the feminine body, whose movements are 'slow and evolving, accompanied by smooth neck movement and lowered gaze,' while the robust male body gives a masculine impression, with gestures that are 'expansive and forceful' and 'the limbs are held at right angles to the body or parallel to the ground.'[36] The ideal male body, however, is the refined male and is often performed by a woman.

    Figure 1. Male and female performer in Javanese court dance. Source. Indonesia OK, online:, site accessed 24 November 2008

  17. The sinetron does not, however, construct the body of male heroes either as the soft body, like the construction of the heroes of the earlier kung fu cinema, or as a continuation of the ideal of male body in Javanese traditional performance. The heroes in the sinetron are performed by actors with muscular bodies, which represent the contemporary (rather than traditional) ideal Indonesian male body: 'bentuk bahu lebar, pinggang ramping, bahu tegap tidak bungkuk, dan betis yang bagus…otot yang menonjol melekat di tubuh' (wide shoulder, slim waist, straight back, good leg…and muscular body).[37] Nevertheless the gender fluidity of Misteri Gunung Merapi suggests that the sinetron is ambiguous in representing the gender and the body of both male and female figures. While the body performance does show the biological sex, gender identity characteristics can be fluid.
  18. In Misteri Gunung Merapi, when women are in action, they are not exceptional as women. The sinetron can combine the powerful and the feminine harmoniously because of the different concept of gender in Indonesian culture, where femininity does not imply weakness. This exemplifies the point that where there are distinctive cultural concepts of gender in different cultures they will create different representations of gender and body. One element of the presentation of the body is the voice. Misteri Gunung Merapi creates complex voice characterisations which help viewers to imagine the characterisation of the figures in the sinetron. In traditional performance, especially Javanese wayang and kethoprak, the voice is very important in character construction. Female figures, as I have discussed above, are divided into three personalities: branyak, kenes and ruruh. The voice accompanying the personalities of branyak and kenes is high pitched and fast paced. When we hear the high pitched tone, we get the impression of the body of an energetic woman. In contrast, for ruruh the voice is slow and low pitched. Similarly, in the sinetron the voice can give a strong impression of the personality of the character. Farida, the good female character speaks with a voice which gives the impression of a 'daddy's girl', or spoiled girl, as does Pitaloka. Mayang Sari has a combination of seductive and authoritative voices. Mak Lampir, the evil female character with her high tone, authoritative voice, vocal tremor and increased breathiness, gives an impression of an old and mean woman. Sembara's voice is that of a refined male character, with his soft rhythm and low pitch. Listening to Sembara's voice, we get an impression of a good, patient, and wise person, although he is still young. However, listening to Mardian's voice gives an impression of a playboy: his voice has a seductive tone. Notably it is only from Mak Lampir, a female and an evil figure, that we hear a truly authoritative voice. It is true that the male characters Sultan Patah and Sultan Agung, the historical figures, have authoritative voices as they represent the king but their roles in the story are very limited.
  19. What of the sexualisation of the female action heroine, so common in Hollywood film? Tasker argues that, in response to the women's movement, most Hollywood action-adventure cinema of the 1970s provided more images of independent and sexually free heroines. However, these active and independent heroines were also presented as 'fashion plates' with 'glamorous sexuality' and thus, she argues, the image of active heroines 'does emerge from existing traditions of representation.' The interplay between masculinity and femininity emerges in the form of already-existing types and conventions such as 'the leather-clad dominatrix' which is 'drawn from a stylised cartoon or comic strip tradition.' The emphasis on the heroine's sexuality and 'her availability within traditional feminine terms' is produced as compensation for 'the sexual presentation of the hero's body'—as is the emphasis on his activity. In Tasker's opinion the sexualisation of the female figure and its frequent comedic aspects, deployed to 'explain away' her heroic actions and 'to reassert her femininity,' were exploitative and were directed at male rather than female audiences.[38] Some Indonesian action films produced during the New Order era also used this convention for constructing female fighters in ways which Sen characterises as soft pornography.[39]
  20. The heroic female figures in Misteri Gunung Merapi do not, however, emerge from any 1970s leather-clad dominatrixes as an extension of male fantasy. Nor are they portrayed as the 'new female heroes of the 1990s' phenomenon of 'action babe cinema,' described by Marc O'Day as slim, beautiful, sexy and tough. Certainly, some of them are beautiful; however, they are neither slim nor sexy.[40]
  21. It is not surprising then that Misteri Gunung Merapi does not share the problematic representation of the female body that Western feminist critics have identified, as this sinetron develops its representations of male and female bodies from Javanese traditional performance, where the masculine and feminine body styles or appearances do not correlate simply with a clear gender division between male and female. This makes the sinetron distinctive compared to Hollywood action-adventure and Chinese martial art representation as discussed by feminist scholars. But screening the female body is problematic in Indonesia.[41] To serve Indonesian audiences sensitive to the representation of the female body, the cinematic tradition is negotiated in Misteri Gunung Merapi so as to construct the body of female fighters in a way suitable for a predominantly middle-class Muslim family viewing. Films with a lot of exposure of female body are rarely screened in first class cinemas;[42] in fact, action films showing the male and female body as spectacle are mainly targeted at lower-class audiences. Female actors in such films who perform actions that expose their breasts and thighs are considered as artis panas (hot artists) and they are rarely respected in general society. While feminine beauty is not incompatible with strength and power, nevertheless the beautiful woman is still the object of the male gaze. Misteri Gunung Merapi adopts a strategy to provide its middle-class audience with a version of such objectification—but not in the ways common in Western cinema and television.

    The body as spectacle
  22. The body as spectacle is a convention in the action genre. Misteri Gunung Merapi follows this convention but shots of the female body are taken from a distance. The spectacle moves from the (possibly sexualised) body as the object of the camera to the movement of the body, as if it is a courtly dancing performance. The screening of the movement of the hands, with the waving of the long scarf at the waist and the shoulder of female fighters, is comparable to traditional dance performance. Instead of being a spectacle of sexual objectification the spectacle is of movement and costume—the sinetron successfully negotiates the convention of body as spectacle to produce an acceptable Indonesian translation.
  23. Further, in Misteri Gunung Merapi the object of the camera is not the female body but the beautiful female face. There are many close-ups which screen the beautiful faces of the female actors. Mary Ann Doane has asserted that the cinematic close-up has a different function in each country. In Soviet cinema it 'was not so much to show or to present as to signify, the close-up was the support of an intellectual, critical cinema.' In Russian and French the terms for 'close up' 'denote largeness or large skill,' while in English the term invokes 'two different binary oppositions—proximity vs. distance and the large vs. the small.' In the American context, it establishes 'the relation between spectator and image.'[43] Looking at the number of close-ups of the beautiful faces of female characters in Misteri Gunung Merapi, the function of the close-up in the sinetron is to make the face the object of the camera. As the face is the focus of the camera and the spectacle is the beautiful face, the major requirement for becoming a female actor is beauty.

    Figure 2. The women in the sinetron fight with scarves for their weapons. Source. Ucik Supra, 'The Love Tragedy of Nyai Kembang,' in VCD Misteri Gunung Merapi, Jakarta: PT Genta Buana Pitaloka, 2001.

    Figure 4. Female fighting in sinetron; the camera shot is taken from the lower part of the body. Source. Sirait, Ed. Pesta, 'Pendekar Kamasutra (The Warrior Kamasutra)'in VCD Misteri Gunung Merapi, Jakarta: PT Genta Buana Pitaloka, 2004.   Figure 5. Female fighting with a shot of the upper part of female body. Source. Ucil Supra, 'Pendekar Perak (The Silver Warrior),' in VCD Misteri Gunung Merapi, Jakarta: PT Genta Buana Pitaloka, 2001.

  24. The filming of fighting women in Misteri Gunung Merapi, when the camera jumps from a close-up of the beautiful face to the moving body from a distance, gives us insight into the cultural codes that construct women in Indonesia. Unlike fighting women in Western cinema where physical combat is accompanied by the masculine image of sweating and dirt, fighting women in this sinetron maintain the image of women as sweet and beautiful with their feminine dress. Expressions of anger, which accompany combat, are also rarely shown in close up. Misteri Gunung Merapi includes scenes of a woman with a sword. The sword does not look dangerous in her hand, as her facial expression does not express anger. With her red lips open and her beautiful makeup and her tidy hair arrangement, although she looks focused and determined with the sword in her hand, the feminisation produced by the hair and makeup reduces the quality of an angry expression and the danger of the sword. To some extent, then such scenes produce an image of woman as spectacle, for although she holds a sword, she is not shown as a dangerous woman. Although the text may show that the female heroes are powerful and in control,[44] they are still the object of the camera. In contrast, the sweaty face and angry look of the unarmed fighting woman surrounded by armed males in a Chinese wuxia film suggests a more dangerous woman. Further, the position of the camera in Misteri Gunung Merapi, which shoots from a lower angle, produces an image of beautiful feminine bodies in movement. With this filming technique, the patriarchal tradition of gender division that woman is to be looked at is maintained, but not explicitly sexually.
  25. In some senses Misteri Gunung Merapi shows the continuation of the tradition of filming the female body that characterised New Order cinema. Women's bodies were 'fully draped in shapeless clothing.' The screening focused 'on the face, not the body.' The only exception was in 'the sadistic/erotic displays of bodies in Japanese (Occupation) Period and Horror genre films.'[45] A woman's body could be displayed only in films about prostitutes. Sen wrote that the prostitute was 'the most frequent construction of the adult female protagonist outside the scope of monogamy and motherhood.' Films about prostitutes used 'the female body to sell the product (the film) while at the same time condemning that body.'[46] Sen argued that 'parallels' between Mulvey's criticism of Hollywood cinema and her own notion of Indonesian cinema were unavoidable: 'the camera acts as an extension of the male gaze' and 'both visually and psychologically, the women here are constructed from the hero's perspective, judged from his point of view.'[47] She applied this analysis to an Indonesian action film, 7 Wanita dalam Tugas Rahasia (Seven Women on a Secret Mission), which she considered to be a soft-core porn film, identifying 'a sado-masochistic edge to the film's revelation of the women's bodies.'[48]

    Figure 6. Although the female fighter in the sinetron has a sword and she looks determined and focussed, the sword does not look dangerous in her hand because of her makeup and tidy hair. Source: Ucik Supra, 'Ratu Muslihat (The Liar Queen),' in VCD Misteri Gunung Merapi, Jakarta: PT Genta Buana Pitaloka, 2004.   Figure 7. The female fighter in Crouching Tiger and Hidden dragon looks powerful with her sweat and dirty face although she does not carry any weapon. Source: 'Crouching Tiger,' in The Gregory Harris Experience, online:, site accessed 24 November 2008.

  26. Misteri Gunung Merapi follows the tradition of what Mulvey described as 'to-be-looked-at-ness,' but in a noticeably different way. The female character is portrayed as always aware that she is under other people's gaze. But, no scene shows a completely naked or suggestively semi-naked female body. In sleeping scenes female characters remain completely clothed. When there is a sound of danger, they just jump up and are ready for action. Even in bathing scenes, which in Western cinema are often used to exploit the naked female body, the female body is screened. It is beautiful but not directly exposed. One example from Misteri Gunung Merapi is where the leaves of a tree are used to block the camera lenses from taking a full picture of the female body. The focus of the camera is more on her beautiful face. However, this shot could still encourage a male viewer to imagine her naked body despite its being screened by the leaves and her bathing cloth.

    Figure 8. Although the female character in the sinetron is sleeping, she wears full costume and there are no close-ups of any part of the female body. Source: Ucik Supra, 'Dukun Cabul (The Indecent Shaman),' in VCD Misteri Gunung Merapi, Jakarta: PT Genta Buana Pitaloka, 2002.   Figure 9. When shooting the female body while bathing, the leaves block the camera's line of sight to produce a less suggestive image of nakedness. Source. Ucik Supra, 'Prahara Cinta Nyai Kembang (The Love Tragedy of Nyai Kembang),' in VCD Misteri Gunung Merapi, Jakarta: PT Genta Buana Pitaloka, 2001.

    Costume and the female body
  27. In Western cinema, clothing is important in signifying power. Feminine clothing signifies its distance from toughness. Innes has argued that 'a pair of khakis has a higher tough quotient than a pink tutu' and 'a plain white t-shirt ranks higher on the scale of toughness than a bright orange or angora sweater.'[49] In Western action cinema the female hero often wears pants and a masculine undershirt.[50] Similarly, in the Asian action cinema tradition, the action heroine wears masculine clothing and not 'rich dresses in vivid purple and pink' which signify vulnerability and weakness. This is to show that she does not ask to be the object of the male gaze but rather has the quality of a strong and aggressive mind.[51] It may also occur in wuxia films that a woman dresses in male costume as a disguise, such as in the films Come Drink With Me and Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon.

    Figure 10. The heroic women Thelma and Louise in masculine clothing. Source. 'Thelma and Louise Pictures and Photos,' in, online:, site accessed 24 November 2008.   Figure 11. The warrior women in Come Drink with Me chooses grey and a severe hair style to produce a genderless image. Source. 'Pei Pei,' in Third Millennium Entertainment, online:, site accessed 24 November 2008.

  28. The similarity between these interpretations of the costume of female heroes in both Asian and Western action suggests the centrality of a male hero —the action heroine follows masculine cultural behaviour, or adopts masculine disguise, to be active in a male-dominated world. However, these codes are not applied in Misteri Gunung Merapi. In this sinetron, feminine clothing and the display of the body do not signify helplessness. They do signify womanliness, but that can be powerful. This can be seen from the bright coloured dresses of the active female figures in the sinetron. Pants, as male clothing, are covered with a lot of scarfs so that the body looks feminine but can still move easily for fighting.
  29. Colour is important in Misteri Gunung Merapi. The antagonist in the story, Mayang Sari, is shown as a young attractive woman with strong sexual desires, but she is not pictured simply as a sexy woman. Her kimono-like long red dress with short sleeves over red pants makes her look exotic. The brightness of her red costume and her red scarf on her arranged hair signals her desire to be looked at. However, it is not easy for a man to play with her. She is the one who determines the man she wants to sleep with, and can easily defeat a group of men who try to force their desires on her. Further there is a contrast between Mayang Sari's outward appearance and her willingness to kill. The red colour of the costume she wears is the only sign of her seductive character. Her costume is loose and does not show off the curves of her body. This representation of a seductive female character in Indonesian films is uncommon —such women usually wear heavy make-up and tight and scanty costumes.

    Figure 12. The sign of Mayang Sari's seductive character is through the choice of red colour. The shot of her finger in her mouth produces an image suggesting she is not an innocent woman. Source. Ucik Supra, 'Alap-alap Laut Kidul (The Hero of the South Sea),' in VCD Misteri Gunung Merapi, Jakarta: PT Genta Buana Pitaloka, 2001.   Figure 13. The long shot of her full body does not produce an image of sexy woman. Source: Ucik Supra, 'Alap-alap Laut Kidul (The Hero of the South Sea),' in VCD Misteri Gunung Merapi, Jakarta: PT Genta Buana Pitaloka, 2001.

  30. Meanwhile Pitaloka, an innocent girl making a journey for the first time, is portrayed as a beautiful girl with a pink or yellow kemben, a loose cloth which is wrapped several times around her upper torso covering her hips and breasts. One selendang (scarf) is put decoratively around her waist covering her long pants and another is draped loosely on her shoulder like the Indian sari. She has her long hair pulled back in barrettes. Her pink costume, a popular colour among teens, signals her innocence and youth. It also suggests that the heroic female character in the sinetron does not need to show that she is exceptional. She is like any other girl who favours girly colours but she is also powerful. She is not like a Chinese female action character who tends to choose white or grey colour to differentiate herself from feminine powerlessness.

    Figure 14. Pitaloka under arrest. Source: Ucik Supra, 'Leak (The Devil),' in VCD Misteri Gunung Merapi, Jakarta: PT Genta Buana Pitaloka, 2001.   Figure 15. Pitaloka in action. Source. Ucik Supra, 'Leak (The Devil),' in VCD Misteri Gunung Merapi, Jakarta: PT Genta Buana Pitaloka, 2001.

  31. Most of the powerful female characters are portrayed as beautiful girls with long pants and kemben showing off their breasts and slim waist. The long selendang on their waists and shoulders also gives them the Indian sari look. With this costume they look very feminine but not sensual. All of them have their long hair pulled back in a bun, arranged beautifully with ornaments. In fact most important figures in Misteri Gunung Merapi do not wear traditional Javanese costume but rather a combination suggestive of many ethnic cultures.

    Figure 16. The female character in her modified traditional cloth of kemben and selendang. Source. Ed. Pesta Sirait, 'Pendekar Kamasutra (The Warrior Kamasutra),' in VCD Misteri Gunung Merapi, Jakarta: PT Genta Buana Pitaloka, 2004.   Figure 17. The female fighters in feminine costume with a modern style of batik. Source: Ed. Pesta Sirait, 'Penculikan Mahesa (Mahesa's Abduction),' in VCD Misteri Gunung Merapi, Jakarta: PT Genta Buana Pitaloka, 2005.

  32. The typical female costume of this sinetron is reminiscent of the Balinese dance costume created by body binding. The hair arrangements and the make-up can be read as undermining the woman's power as they evoke traditional femininity, but while women become objects of spectacle, femininity is not passive in the sense used by Mulvey. The concept of sexy is moved from the idea of glamorous and sexually appealing into a more Asian idea of being graceful and elegant.

      Figure 19. The heroic women in the sinetron are more like traditional dancers than female fighters. Source. Ed. Pesta Sirait, 'Pendekar Kamasutra (The Warrior Kamasutra),' in VCD Misteri Gunung Merapi, Jakarta: PT Genta Buana Pitaloka, 2004.

    Figure 18. Balinese dancer with her sabuk wound around her breasts and her waist to show off the curve of the female body. Source. 'penari.lowres.jpg,' in Bali and Indonesia on the Net, online:, site accessed 4 February 2009.

  33. The choice of winding the sabuk tightly around the female body achieves a slim, slender and feminine look. However, the strong binding of the sabuk can actually constrain body movement. Fighting is a struggle between life and death which needs freedom of movement of all parts of the body. To fight easily, the costume should support the movement of the body and also should not cover the sensitivity of the skin to the hiss of any attack.[52] With body binding, the movement of more of the body can be noticed by the spectator and provides that movement with more allure. However, the body binding in the sinetron, which is to achieve the spectacle effect of traditional performance but confines and restrains, illustrates some of the contradictions in the screening of the female body that are specific to the Indonesian context. The powerful female heroes perform their fighting effectively while wearing costumes which have been contrived to provide for the fighting movements while producing the desired effect of beauty and femininity.
  34. The ideal of Asian female beauty, more related to the face, hair and skin than in the West,[53] influences the way the female body and femininity is constructed in Misteri Gunung Merapi. The choice of costume and the hair arrangement for the powerful women in this sinetron shows how the spectacle of femininity is gained through attractive costuming. Rather than appearing sexually appealing as in a Western film, the women in Misteri Gunung Merapi embody a more Asian idea of being graceful and elegant. This conveys the image of a fashionable body rather than one made mainly for fighting, and could be read as undermining women's power and evoking traditional femininity. But while the women become objects of feminine spectacle, they are not passive in the sense used by Mulvey.

  35. My investigation of the way that the bodies of female fighters are represented in Misteri Gunung Merapi shows how the sinetron continues the tradition of the idea of female body as an object of spectacle. The sinetron has gone beyond some of the previous Indonesian cinematic conventions for filming the female body while serving its predominantly middle-class Muslim Indonesian audiences. The screening of the body of the female fighters is modified and negotiated by the use of either distance shots of the females fighting, which resemble dancing, or close-ups of the beautiful looks of the Eurasian face. In this way, the sinetron maintains the idea of women as the object of the male gaze, within Indonesian norms, but still shows them fighting. This sinetron coincides historically with the Western construction of the powerful cute girl who signifies that being feminine can be powerful. However, a closer look suggests that the representation of powerful beautiful girls in Misteri Gunung Merapi is more a reincarnation of traditional performances rather than a borrowing from the West, or from the Chinese film tradition.
  36. Considering the construction of powerful action women in the sinetron, it can be demonstrated that Misteri Gunung Merapi does not share the problems of the Hollywood action genre in showing the capacity of the female/feminine/soft body performing a male/masculine/hard body role, because martial art in the sinetron is not about physical body conflict but about the exercising of supernatural power. Nor does it share the Chinese martial art genre's need to represent heroic female figures disguised in male clothing. The exotic portrayal of heroic female figures in the sinetron does bear some resemblance to the Western action chicks of 1990s and to Chinese martial arts films. One clear distinction is that in the Indonesian socio-cultural context, the difference between male and female bodies is clearly identified.
  37. The representation of gender and body in Misteri Gunung Merapi shows that both women and men can be powerful, with the same capacity and capability in combat, while keeping their sex identity different. This representation of gender and body suggest that the sexes are equal but different, although not in the patriarchal sense of female difference as inferiority. This representation of gender in the sinetron offers modern Indonesian Muslim women an expectation of equality, albeit in a supernatural past, with an acceptance of difference in terms of biological identity.


    [1] This article was drawn from one of the chapters in my Ph.D. thesis, entitled 'Gender and Cultural Transition in Indonesian TV in the Sinetron Misteri Gunung Merapi' which I undertook in the Women's Studies Department, Flinders University, South Australia. I deeply acknowledge that this article would not be readable without the insights and suggestions of my former Ph.D. supervisor, Susan Sheridan and Head of the Women's Studies Department, Barbara Baird.

    [2] Misteri Gunung Merapi was originally a martial arts comic which was then rewritten as a radio drama series. Because of its popularity, it was then rewritten and produced for sinetron. Although the title is Misteri Gunung Merapi, neither the story nor the setting is about Mount Merapi. Only the first episodes take the setting of some areas around volcanoes (Gunung Merapi in Javanese language) such as Mount Sumbing.

    [3] Sinetron is the acronym of 'sinematografi' and 'elektronik,' electronic cinematography to differentiate from celluloid cinematography or movie or theatre. This term refers to series, serials, or television film as the purpose of the production is mainly to broadcast on TV.

    [4] The network, Indosiar, categorised this sinetron as kolosal laga (colossal action), however like Chinese wuxia martial arts TV series or movies, there are some elements of the war and epics genres in the sinetron.

    [5] See Veven Sp. Wardhana, Kapitalisme Televisi dan Strategi Budaya Massa (Television Capitalism and Mass-culture Strategy), Yogyakarta: Pustaka Pelajar, 1997.

    [6] Jusuf Antariksawan, 'Action serials and "me too" programming in local TV,' the Jakarta Post, 6 May 2001, accessed 26 March 2006. This site is no longer freely available.

    [7] Laura Mulvey, 'Visual pleasure and the narrative cinema,' in Visual and Other Pleasures, ed. Laura Mulvey, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989, pp. 14–26.

    [8] Yvonne Tasker, Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre, and the Action Cinema, Comedia London and New York: Routledge, 1993, p. 16.

    [9] Dawn Heinecken, The Warrior Women of Television: A Feminist Cultural Analysis of the New Female Body in Popular Media, New York: Peter Lang, 2003, p. 1.

    [10] Heinecken, The Warrior Women of Television, p. 2.

    [11] Sara Buttsworth, '"Bite Me": Buffy and the penetration of the gendered warrior-hero,' in Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, vol. 16, no. 2 (2002):185–99, p. 185.

    [12] Marc O'Day, 'Beauty in motion: gender, spectacle, and action babe cinema,' in Action and Adventure Cinema, ed. Yvonne Tasker, London: Routledge, 2004, pp. 201–14, p. 203.

    [13] Cited in Douglass Eby, 'Warrior women on screen,' in Talent Development Resources, n.d., URL:, accessed 11 November 2008.

    [14] Tasker, Spectacular Bodies, pp. 16–17.

    [15] Leon Hunt, 'The Lady is the Boss? Hidden dragons and "Deadly China Dolls",' in Kung Fu Cult Masters: From Bruce Lee to Crouching Tiger, London: Wallflower Press, 2003, pp. 117—39, p. 119; Tasker, Spectacular Bodies, p. 24.

    [16] Wendy Arons, '"If her stunning beauty doesn't bring you to your knees, her deadly drop kick will": violent women in the Hong Kong kung fu film,' in Reel Knockouts: violent women in the movies, ed. Martha McCaughey and Neal King, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001, pp. 27–51, p. 27.

    [17] Lenuta Giukin, 'Boy-girls: gender, body, and popular culture in Hong Kong action movies?,' in Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls : Gender in Film at the End of the Twentieth Century, ed. Murray Pomerance, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001, pp. 55–70.

    [18] Aaron Anderson, 'Kinesthesia in martial art films,' in Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, vol. 42 (1998), URL:, site accessed 21 June 2006.

    [19] Catherine Jean Gomes, 'Doing it (un)like a lady: rethinking gender in martial arts cinema,' in Graduate Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies, vol. 2, no. 1 (2004), URL:, site accessed 23 November 2005.

    [20] Hunt, 'The Lady is the Boss? Hidden dragons and "Deadly China Dolls".'

    [21] Hunt, 'The Lady is the Boss? Hidden dragons and "Deadly China Dolls".'

    [22] Arons, '"If her stunning beauty doesn't bring you to your knees, her deadly drop kick will",' p. 27.

    [23] Arons, '"If her stunning beauty doesn't bring you to your knees, her deadly drop kick will",' p. 28.

    [24] Arons, '"If her stunning beauty doesn't bring you to your knees, her deadly drop kick will".'

    [25] Arons, '"If her stunning beauty doesn't bring you to your knees, her deadly drop kick will".'

    [26] Arons, '"If her stunning beauty doesn't bring you to your knees, her deadly drop kick will".'

    [27] Julia Suryakusuma, 'State and sexuality in New Order Indonesia,'in Fantasizing the Feminine in Indonesia, ed. Laurie J. Sears, Durham: Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 92–119. See also other articles in this edited volume.

    [28] For example: Raden Eni Rukmini Sekar Ningrat (93 years old) is the great master of the martial art school 'panglipur' in West Java. She has led the martial art school for 58 years. See Liputan 6 SCTV, 21 April 2008, online:, site accessed 4 November 2008.

    [29] The Chinese female warriors 'present a unique problematic.' Although female warriors have been part of the Chinese knight-errant tradition since ancient times and considering that the world of wuxia or jianghu is not a social and ideological vacuum, 'martial art chivalry induces doubts and anxieties about the female protagonist's sexual identity.' There needs to be a reason provided for the complete denial of the woman's warrior feminine identity such as that she was a male in a previous life. See Rong, Cai, 'Gender imaginations in Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon and the wuxia world,' in East Asia Cultures Critique, vol. 13, no. 2 (2005):441–71, pp. 447–48.

    [30] See Peter Carey and Vincent Houben (eds), Spirited Srikandhis and Sly Subadras: The Social Political and Economic Role of Women at the Central Javanese Courts in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries, Indonesian Women in Focus: Past and Present Notions, Dordrecht, Holland; Providence, USA: Foris Publications, 1987, pp. 2–42, pp. 18–21.

    [31] See Sherrie A. Inness, Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, p. 5; and Yvonne Tasker, Working Girls: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Cinema, London ; New York: Routledge, 1998, p. 169.

    [32] Krishna Sen, 'Interpretations of the feminine in cinema,' in Culture and Society in New Order Indonesia, ed. Virginia Matheson Hooker, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 117–33.

    [33] The mythical figures from Mahabharata adopted into Javanese for wayang performances.

    [34] Cited in Evelyn Blackwood, 'Gender transgression in colonial and postcolonial Indonesia,' in The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 64, no. 4 (2005):849–79, pp. 856–57, online:

    [35] Blackwood has argued that traditionally gender was fluid in Indonesia because 'the ideal cosmic unity in which two opposing or complementary genders can be fused or combined produced and articulates a sacred gender…male and female are viewed as complementary or identical beings in many respects.' See Blackwood, 'Gender transgression in colonial and postcolonial Indonesia,' p. 871.

    [36] Garrett Kam, 'Wayang wong in the court of Yogyakarta: the enduring significance of Javanese dance drama,' in Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 4, no. 1 (1987):29–51, pp. 37–38, online:

    [37] Nuraini Juliastuti, 'Majalah Hai dan boyish culture (Hai magazine and boyish culture),' in Newsletter Kunci, no. 8 (2000), online:, accessed 10 August 2006.

    [38] Tasker, Spectacular bodies, pp. 18 – 20.

    [39] Sen, 'Interpretations of the feminine in cinema,' p. 127.

    [40] O'Day, 'Beauty in motion: gender, spectacle, and action babe cinema,' pp. 206–07.

    [41] See Pam Allen, 'Women, gendered activism and Indonesia's anti-pornography bill,' in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, issue 19, February 2009, online:, 20 February 2009, for an account of the anti-pornography legislation introduced into the Indonesian parliament and the popular responses to it as an indication of contemporary battles around the female body. See also Pam Allen, 'Challenging Diversity? Indonesia's Anti-Pornography Bill,' in Asian Studies Review, vol. 31, no. 2 (2007):101–15.

    [42] First class cinema refers to cinemas which screen box office movies such as Theatre 21. The second class cinemas screen old films. The lower-middle class people generally wait for the films screened in the second class cinema a few months after it has been screened in the first class venue, as the price is cheaper.

    [43] Mary Ann Doane, 'The close up: scale and detail in cinema,' in Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol. 14, no. 3 (2005):89–111, p. 92.

    [44] See Marlo Edwards, 'The blonde with the guns: Barb Wire and the "implausible" female action hero,' in Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 32, no. 1 (2004):39–47, online:

    [45] Karl G. Heider, Indonesian Cinema: National Culture on Screen, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991, p. 69.

    [46] Krishna Sen, Indonesian Cinema: Framing the New Order, London; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Zed Books, 1994, p. 145.

    [47] Sen, Indonesian Cinema: Framing the New Order, p. 134.

    [48] Sen, Indonesian Cinema: Framing the New Order, p. 151.

    [49] Sherrie A. Inness, Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, p. 25.

    [50] Jeffery A. Brown, 'Gender and action heroine: hardbodies and the "Point of No Return",' in Cinema Journal, vol. 35, no. 3 (1996):52–71, online:

    [51] Giukin, 'Boy-girls: gender, body, and popular culture in Hong Kong action movies,' p. 58.

    [52] In martial art skills, one of the exercises is meditation. The purpose of this exercise is to train the skin to be sensitive to any hiss of movement. The body will react instinctively to defend every time there is any sense of movement hiss.

    [53] Katherine Frith, Phing Shaw, and Hong Cheng, 'The construction of beauty: a cross-cultural analysis of women's magazine advertising,' in Journal of Communication, vol. 55, no. 1 (2005):56–70, p. 66, online:


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