Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 28, March 2012

Forbidden Love and Productive Friction:
Taking Transgression Mainstream in the Indonesian Pop Song,
Cinta Terlarang

Phillip Drake [1]

        Kau kan slalu tersimpan di hatiku
        Meski ragamu tak dapat ku miliki

          (You will always be kept in my heart
          Even though your body I cannot possess)[2]

  1. In these opening lines to Cinta Terlarang (Forbidden Love), a pop ballad written and performed by the Indonesian female duo in 2009, The Virgin, the listener encounters the tension between two modes of having: the figurative keeping of another that can last forever in the first line, and the physical act of possession, which is impossible, in the second. This tension between the impossibility and perseverance of love, this forever/impossible scheme is paradigmatic of a typical melancholic love song; yet, when we consider the performers, circulation, and ensuing lyrics of Cinta Terlarang, these opening lines initiate a performance that is interwoven with contradictions, double-meanings, and disorienting ellipses that disallow singular interpretation. Even the duo’s name, The Virgin, overflows with religious and cultural meaning, which becomes fraught with more tension by invoking not only western and Indonesian notions of feminine chastity but also the 'forbidden love’ that the song’s title promises. Placed beside each other, these multiple interpretations of the song generate discursive friction that forges space to present radical depictions of desire and sexual identification for women in Indonesia's mainstream entertainment media.[3]
  2. In addition to facilitating the circulation of these depictions for mass consumption—in contrast to underground cultural movements and scenes that are more accommodating to direct expressions of same-sex desire—I want to suggest that the friction between readings effects the potential to generate subjectivities capable of experiencing and expressing desire in new, often unexpected ways. In other words, rather than understanding the song merely as one instance of queerness being coded into mainstream circulation, the friction between queerness and mainstream-ness works dialectically to unsettle both, and opens up possibilities for more diverse ways of conceptualising, experiencing and depicting desire.
  3. As we shall see, the horizons opened by these frictions are not always beneficial to promoting tolerance and understanding of same-sex desire in public culture, and that discursive openings also make possible marginalisation, appropriation and commodification. The crucial point, however, is that the radical possibilities suggested by the song and its circulation counters—or at least adds nuance to—perceptions that sexual politics in Indonesia have taken a markedly conservative turn in recent years.[4]
  4. By working though the song's lyrics, as the song concurrently works through this essay, I will identify several moments of friction, not only within the song and its lyrical engagement with ideologies of sexuality and gender in contemporary public culture in Indonesia, but also in the duo's self-packaging in the public sphere. This essay is framed by the lyrical textuality of Cinta Terlarang, which provides numerous moments of departure for analyses that expose frictions between divided and embodied subjectivity—in religious ambiguity, in the performance and regulation of sex and gender, in the adaptation of western codes of sex and gender, in the song's music-video narrative and in the commodification and circulation of transgressive messages and imagery. The productive friction at work in Cinta Terlarang illustrates the possibility of disseminating liberating and transgressive visions of same-sex desire while inhabiting structures of normative regulation. This is not to celebrate regulating structures, but rather, as they become vehicles of subversion, to note their instability.
  5. I also must acknowledge the danger of placing my interpretation in hierarchical relation to the multiplicity of other potential interpretations: should a single interpretation of the song dominate others, it would likely diffuse the very interpretive friction that makes the song notable. My reading, too, is unstable, even as it aims to articulate the possibility seeded within the song's lyrics and note the song's openings and provocations instead of authorising its hermeneutic closure. There is an array of possible interpretations of the song, which include the progressive, conservative, transgressive, and homophobic; yet, despite whatever religious, moral and political ideologies that bleed into every encounter with a text, the song—like all texts—is fraught with rhetorical and grammatical tensions that generate a 'suspended ignorance' that precludes the totalisation of meaning (the text's truth or essence).[5] My reading is meant to be attentive to the dynamism and complexity of the lyrical portrayal of same-sex desire, regardless of the ways they may be fixed and articulated elsewhere.
  6. This interpretive complexity in many ways mirrors the complex ways both sex and sexuality are depicted in Indonesia's mass media. Many outsiders may be surprised by frank references to sex in all varieties of media in Indonesia,[6] although, as Alison Murray and Tom Boellstorff separately note, these representations generally reinforce 'heterosexist' ideologies that extol opposite-sex relationships generally within marriage.[7] Recently, however, the growing presence and influence of religious conservatism, both culturally and within the government, threaten to intensify the regulation of bodies and sex and of depictions of bodies and sex, targeting a range of behaviours—both heterosexual and homosexual—that are perceived to transgress moral codes. High-profile examples of this regulation are almost too numerous to count: there is the controversial and sweeping 2008 anti-pornography law in Indonesia, which includes ambiguously-worded language that many find dangerous to civil rights;[8] at a New Year's Party in Bandung, six people were arrested for a performance of a 'sexy dance' in a club that allegedly violated the anti-pornography law;[9] in West Aceh, police have set up routine checks on women to judge whether their pants are too tight, forcing some to wear long skirts over these pants;[10] in Bali, police detained twenty-eight men who fit the profile ('young, fit-looking and tanned, mostly surfer beach boys') of the alleged beach gigalos known as the 'Kuta Cowboys,' keeping them to determine whether they were in fact selling sex (which occurred in the same week that a controversial documentary about the Kuta Cowboys was released);[11] the infamous 'Peter-porn' scandal, in which Nazril Irham (or Ariel), the singer of the popular band Peterpan, was jailed with a three-and-a-half-year sentence, after several personal recordings of private sexual acts were stolen and circulated on the internet;[12] and two separate high profile conferences that were designed to discuss and promote the rights of LGBT people in Indonesia were broken up by demonstrations, intimidation and threats of violence by followers of a radical, conservative Islamist group.[13] Ostensibly, this contentious moral climate appears hardly amenable, at least in the popular media, to a song celebrating the passion between two women in Indonesia.
  7. Although the regulation of sex and bodies affects a variety of sexual behaviours by individuals of every gender, the institutional predominance of heterosexism and patriarchy in Indonesia tends to make women more vulnerable to marginalisation. B.J.D. Gayatri writes that 'the Indonesian government maintains a tight control over sexuality. The institution of marriage is the only approved context for sexual relations, outside of which sex is only practiced by men and prostitutes.'[14] Depictions of female sexual desire outside of the structures of marriage are virtually non-existent in mass media, especially same-sex desire, as Dédé Oetomo observes: 'Lesbis (for all intents and purposes similar to lesbians in the West) are the least-known population group in Indonesian society.… Since the pressure to get married and set up a family is even stronger on women, most lesbians are, have been, or will be married.'[15] Thus, celebrations of desire and sex that run counter to institutions of marriage and religion are generally not only terlarang (forbidden) but also absent within mainstream culture.
  8. Of course, counter normative or forbidden expressions of desire face various (cultural/religious/economic) obstacles in any society. Cinta Terlarang, while not explicitly a 'lesbian song,' portrays women negotiating some of these obstacles to express forbidden desires through wordplay, religious allusions and layered meanings. Something forbidden is expressed, but forbidden-ness is structured within a meshwork of obfuscations that blunt the song's radical impact, thus making possible its mainstream circulation. In the fold between queerness and mainstream culture where elements of queer desire become shaped for consumable, mainstream entertainment, each is altered by the trace of the other: mainstream culture forever keeps this trace of queerness, while queerness transforms too in accord with commodity circulation—a point to which I will return later—and the demands of a broad general audience. We thus encounter the dialectical streamlining of forbidden-ness and queering of mainstream-ness, effecting ambiguity that makes possible the slow transformation of an array of cultural networks by destabilising queerness and mainstream-ness as separate and isolated fields. While this ambiguity can allow space for the intensification of radical conservativism and homophobia, the symptoms of transgression couched within discursive instability offers an important contrast to perceptions that moral codes are only tightening in Indonesia's public culture.
  9. The forever/impossible formula that is staged in the song's first two lines serves as one such register of ambiguity, depicting a love that operates outside the horizon of normative cultural practice: it is withdrawn, private and idealised. The forever/impossible formula conceptually splits both the lover and beloved each into a body and an idea, where the idea retains forever-ness and the body expresses impossibility. The subjects are divided, mind from body, which thus appears as: forever(idea)/impossible(body). In a Cartesian spin, any manifestation of this forever/impossible love posits the idea as prior to the body.[16] Without the idea, there can be no love like that conceived in the first lines, the forever/impossible love. I think [love]—the idea of love is thoroughly present 'kept in the heart'—therefore I am [confronted with the body of the beloved]. The body, on the other hand, does not require its own presence to support the forever/impossible love of the first lines in the song. When materialised, the body is impossible to 'possess' without violating normative social codes, but as we dematerialise the body, the impossibility of possession still arises in its literal absence, which alters the formula: forever(idea[presence])/impossible(body[+/-presence]).
  10. The idea of love is capable of lasting forever, but the body—whether in presence or absence—casts a transgressive shadow that threatens material and cultural norms. In presence, the body marks the materialisation of same-sex love that threatens social codes, but the body's absence violates the materiality of loving, turning it into something abstract—even ghostly. By expelling the body it allows forbidden-ness to be replaced by an idealised and sanitised expression of love. What the lover possesses becomes, in essence, a spectre of the beloved who, through disembodiment, can potentially 'always be kept' in the lover's heart.[17] And as the body of the beloved recedes into the forever/impossible formula, the acts of possessing and expressing love become excessively private, sterile and safe. As an idea, the beloved is internalised and stripped of his or her body's irregularities, its textures, odours, fluids and filth. These material sensations, complications and dangers that characterise embodied love are denied by the forever/impossible love of the song's first lines. We should see by now some of the limitations of the forever/impossible formula for progressive sexual politics. The formula's ideological baggage that arises by giving priority to ideas over bodies ultimately leads to readings that suggest same-sex love between women is fine as long as no bodies are involved—as long as the love remains only an idea that can be subsumed and never physically materialised.
  11. Although the forever/impossible formula represents one form of packaging that enables the circulation of a depiction of same-sex desire, the language of Cinta Terlarang is too complicated to snugly fit into a conceptual apparatus that degrades the significance of the body. The song may begin by asserting the physical separation between lovers, provoking the forever/impossible formula that gives benediction to the ghost of the disembodied beloved, but the body never fades away entirely—it is relentlessly summoned, constantly desired and impossible, private and public, unsettled:

        Jiwaku kan slalu bersamamu
        Meski kau tercipta bukan untukku

          (My soul will always be with you
          Even though you were created not for me)

  12. These third and fourth lines of the song sustain the tension between the body's absence and presence. The language of 'creation' in the fourth line, like that of the 'body' in the second, and the insistence of this love's forbidden-ness throughout the song prevents the material body from disappearing altogether. We cannot be guaranteed that a forever/impossible love is forbidden without the threat of that love's physical materialisation. If the forever/impossible formula offers a depiction of love predicated on the presence of the idea before the body that implies a division between ideational and material love, we can also read the song's insistence of the materiality of the body as a subtle critique of forever/impossibility. This latter reading is predicated on embodiment instead of the divided loving subject. The summoned body appears in its embodied entirety as a creation; yet, that this creation is 'not for me' draws the body back into a forever/impossible formula: the beloved's body is not for me, and therefore impossible to possess, but in the body's non-possession, the idea becomes eternal until it is summoned again. The friction between embodiment and forever/impossibility is never resolved in the song, thereby allowing the song to simultaneously flaunt and obscure its subversive potential. The radical object of the song, same-sex love, is neither fully materialised nor denied.

        Tuhan berikan aku cinta satu kali lagi
        Hanya untuk barsamanya
        Ku mencintainya sungguh mencintainya

          (God gives me love once again
          Only to be together with nya
          I truly love nya, absolutely love nya)

  13. The reference to God in line five and the use of the indefinite pronoun nya in lines six and seven add more texture for interpretation. We arrive at this point already aware of the friction between divided (trapped in the forever/impossible scheme) and embodied subjectivity, but these lines, the beginning of the song's chorus, complicate matters with the use of the pronoun nya as the love object, which is a gender-neutral, third-person pronoun. Nya could be read either as God, a fantastic non-gendered beloved, or a male or female beloved in these and all following lines containing the nya or dia pronouns. Surely the placement of God as nya can be accommodated within the forever/impossible formula as expressing fervent piety, which is a reading supported by the fact that both members of The Virgin—Dara Rizki Ruhiana (Dara) and Cameria Happy Pramita (Mitha)—are Muslim.[18] The fantasy figure of the non-gendered beloved similarly fits the forever/impossible scheme; however, the song's provocations of embodiment—of both the lover and nya (the beloved)—indicate more complicated factors at work than desirous escapism in the non-gendered beloved, while also introducing the problematic of anthropomorphic depictions of divinity. The text prevents us from excluding these readings, whether the members of The Virgin intend these provocations or not. On the other hand, if we read nya as a human beloved, the invocation of God can be read to provide a spiritual context that guarantees the love expressed by the singer-lover. In another reading where nya is human, we can see God's presence in the text as a reference to the religious pressures that forbid love either with nya, whether it be him (out of wedlock) or her (homosexual). The parallel forbidden loves—heterosexual, homosexual and spiritual—turn according to the ways the audience orients God within the song, and can be read as articulating both subversive and conservative ideologies of love.
  14. The fact that the beloved is 'created not' for the lover, also suggests a relationship that defies both the ideological and biological functionalism of gender roles under systems of patriarchy. Some features of patriarchy that Cinta Terlarang engages with are the instrumentalisation of women's bodies for procreation and the denial of female desire and pleasure, which, if depicted at all, are typically rendered as monstrous.[19] Female sexuality in Indonesia is traditionally framed under kodrat wanita, the women's moral code. Saskia Wieringa writes that the kodrat wanita has developed out of religious practices and old Javanese traditions that call for women to 'be meek, passive, obedient to the male members of the family, sexually shy and modest, self-sacrificing and nurturing. To this end, their main vocation was wifehood and motherhood.'[20] This ideological formulation that subordinates women's bodies and desires to their roles as wives and mothers, also can be seen operating in the language of creation in the fourth line of Cinta Terlarang. To desire someone who was 'created not' for the lover, suggests a love falling afoul of kodrat wanita, undermining a woman's traditional roles as wife and mother. Such a love that disrupts normative ideological subject positions is terlarang; yet, this is a song sung by two young, unmarried women. What type of forbidden love could they know about?

        Rasa ini sungguh tak wajar
        Namun ku ingin tetap bersama dia
        Untuk selamanya

          (This feeling is really indecent
          Although I want to stay with dia[21]

  15. The performer of these lines that form the second part of the song's chorus is conscious of the fact that her 'indecent' feelings are bringing her into conflict with cultural norms, and we can see glimmers of this awareness—of confronting restrictive codes of decency—in the band's biographical details. The pop duo, Dara (age 19) and Mitha (age 24), came together as The Virgin under the guidance of Ahmad Dhani early in 2009. Not only is he the duo's producer and head of their label, Republik Cinta Managmen(RCM), but Dhani, himself, is one of the most famous rock personalities in Indonesia, performing in bands such as Dewa and The Rock, managing other bands, including other all-girl groups like Maha Dewi. He has been an outspoken critic of religious fundamentalist groups that promote violence and intolerance. Also a Muslim, Dhani has promoted cultural and religious tolerance through music and public appearances, opposing the justice system's handling of the Peter-porn scandal and recently speaking out for women's right to wear miniskirts.[22] Seeing him as a threat to Islam, radical Islamist groups have also targeted Dhani, both in legal campaigns and in a recent book-bomb terror plot.[23]
  16. Considering Dhani's history as a progressive provocateur, it is not surprising that he would be involved in the creation of a duo like The Virgin. According to an interview with an Indonesian entertainment news website, Dhani first conceived of The Virgin as a side project for Mitha—a guitarist in The Rock—after she penned Cinta Terlarang.[24] Dhani reportedly liked the song, but was concerned it would not fit the rockier style of his band. Instead, Dhani suggested that Mitha form another band and, shortly afterwards, he signed Dara to his label and paired the women together.[25] Dara had previously distinguished herself through performances on Mamamia, a televised talent show for female vocalists that included Dhani as a judge.[26] Since their formation, Mitha has written all of The Virgin's material, which in total includes two other melancholic songs—Belahan Jiwa (Fractured Soul) and Love Setengah Mati (Half-Dead Love)—that also feature forever/impossibility, divided subjects and immaterialised or failed love. At the time of writing, a full-length album is reportedly in production.
  17. That a duo called The Virgin would engage in any indecent activity only builds on the semi-disguised subversiveness of Cinta Terlarang. The artists have not explained the rationale behind the name in any great detail, although Mitha notes that Dhani came up with the name one day when they were joking around. While Mitha and Dara were initially hesitant, Dhani insisted that they keep the name.[27] At this point, the name is crucial to the both the song and the ways the audience identifies with the duo. Without the reference to feminine wholesomeness and pre-sexuality, the radical depiction of female desire is less likely to register within the mainstream cultural economy of Indonesia's popular media. The notion of virginity provides the necessary packaging that puts into circulation this potentially transgressive depiction of female desire. Without this packaging, and other references that layer, contradict and upset any singular interpretation of the song, the radical message (the 'indecent' feelings) would be exposed and understood merely as the radical message it is (as explicit indecency or even pornography), as something excessive to popular standards and tastes of the duo's audience and vulnerable to more intensive modes of regulation and marginalisation.
  18. By adopting the name, The Virgin, the duo appropriates the kodrat wanita as a structure that enables indecency, once again, facilitating the song's broad circulation. A gadis (a young, unmarried virgin woman) is the paragon of perfect feminine purity before marriage. That a gadis would or could commit a sexually transgressive act is virtually unimaginable, according to the kodrat wanita and any normative standards of sexual decency. And since generally all unmarried women in Indonesia are considered to be gadis—because religious and cultural customs forbid premarital sex—the recognition of trangressive possibility in being gadis hints at a subversive potential existing in masses of young women.
  19. The fact that the duo's name is in English, while their songs are performed in Indonesian, indicates The Virgin's cosmopolitan affinities. In The Gay Archipelago, an analysis of homosexuality and subjectivity in Indonesia, Tom Boellstorff emphasises the heterogeneity of homosexuality as a global discourse:

      homosexuality (like any other cultural logic) 'globalizes' (or 'translocates') not as a monolithic discourse but as a multiplicity of beliefs and practices, elements of which can move independently of each other or not move at all. In comparison to the religious, colonial, and mercantile infrastructures that drove 'globalization' in the past, and the 'print capitalism' that made nationalism possible…, contemporary mass media and other aspects of late capitalism make possible the kinds of fractured and contingent translocations I term 'dubbing culture.'[28]

    Temporarily setting aside the idea of 'dubbing culture,' we must note that to identify as gay or lesbi—these words are clearly imported—in Indonesia is to identify with global registers of gay and lesbian culture, without overlooking the distinctive religious, cultural, spatial and familial practices that influence everyday life, including homosexual subjectivity. In other words, homosexual subject positions do not circulate as fixed subjectivities that are ready-made for adoption; rather, they are adapted, fragmented and redeployed in distinct and heterogeneous ways. The terms gay and lesbi may have been imported to Indonesia, but homosexual practices have not.[29] Boellstorff's emphasis on the discontinuities between same-sex subject positions across various spatial scales, from local to national to global, which acknowledges the dynamism of subjectivity and identification, marks a productive departure from totalising discourses that posit homogenous, transnational homonormativity, often in dialogue with globalisation.[30] Martin Manalansan IV notes that while discourses of homonormativity make useful political links across the globe, these identifications threaten to overwrite the important distinctions between same-sex subject positions that cut across race, gender, class and nation.[31] The practices and beliefs of individuals who identify as gay or lesbi in Indonesia are unique compared to individuals in other countries—especially western countries.[32]
  20. Same-sex identification and practice must be understood as not developing unidirectionally—whether seen as the local adopting the global, the local 'localising' the global, or the local, fostering its own 'pure' same-sex subject positions without global contact—but instead as being shaped in the intersections between distinctive sets of experiences, relations and cultural structures.[33] In The Gay Archipelago, Boellstorff carefully explores these disparate identifications: 'This book's starting point is the apparent puzzle of Indonesians who use the terms gay and lesbi in at least some contexts of their lives, yet consider these to be 'authentically Indonesian' (asli Indonesia) ways of being.'[34] Through the course of his investigations, Boellstorff notes that that although gay and lesbi subject positions work in conversation with globalisation and local specificity, they become imagined and articulated on a national scale.[35] With the concept of 'dubbing culture,' Boellstorff theorises the process through which gay and lesbian become gay and lesbi:

      gay and lesbi Indonesians 'dub' ostensibly Western subjectivities. Like a dub, the fusion remains a juxtaposition; the seams show. 'Speech' and 'gesture' never perfectly match; being gay and lesbi and being Indonesian never perfectly match. For gay and lesbi Indonesians, as in dubbing culture more generally, this tension is irresolvable; there is no 'real' version underneath, where everything fits.… Dubbing culture sets two elements side by side, blurred yet distinct. It is a performative act that, in linking persons to subject positions, creates subjectivities.[36]

    While Boellstorff strives to resist appeals to authenticity, origins and totalities that are suggested in the language of dubbing, the productive frictions between cultures in articulation that dubbing locates and positions have rich descriptive value. These frictions between global, national and local structures effect an array of subject positions that may identify as gay and lesbi, while differing from same-sex subject positions elsewhere.
  21. In becoming 'The Virgin,' Mitha and Dara perform another type of cultural dub. Just as being gay or lesbian must be understood differently than being gay or lesbi, a virgin is different than a gadis. At the risk of fixing the terms virgin and gadis in ways that overlook temporal, spatial and contextual modalities that produce their own frictions in ways that undo these words as stable signs, there are general differences that are sustained as the terms fluctuate in meaning. First, we identify some general similarities: both terms indicate individuals who have not had sexual intercourse, both reference purity, and both have religious, moral and familial significance. That said, the most apparent difference between the two terms in their common usage[37] is that 'virgin' is gender neutral, while gadis refers explicitly to females. True, virginity tends to have feminine connotations and more frequently refers to women, but all gadis are female. Additionally, the word gadis appears more commonly in everyday speech in Indonesia, since it can also refer to any young woman, maiden or girl, and its sexual tones tend to be more nuanced, if not at times virtually absent. Calling someone a 'virgin' in the U.S., by contrast, generally makes direct reference to having not participated in sexual practices. With the name, The Virgin, Mitha and Dara dub virginity and its connotations in global circulation onto Indonesian popular culture, creating friction between different notions of virgin-ness, one imbued with sexual connotations and the other a more neutral signifier of youthful femininity.
  22. Neither of these two readings of the band, as wholesome or transgressive, cancels out the other. Both are simultaneously viable and effect productive friction between them. The duo appears quite aware of these frictions: 'Masalah gosip lesbian atau apapun itu cuekin aja' (the gossip about us being lesbians or whatever—we just ignore it), explains Mitha in an interview.[38] This gossip has followed the duo since its inception, especially with the success of Cinta Terlarang; however, much of this gossip seems to be stoked by the duo itself. Any casual search through official and unofficial websites dedicated to The Virgin will turn up countless photographs of the duo posing together as if the two singers were a couple. In most photographs the singers touch each other, frequently with affection, as if they are lovers, while other times more playfully (e.g., piggyback rides, buddy-embraces, wrestling). The touching and physicality of these images convey sexual tension and, still, they are gadis.
  23. While the duo is open about Mitha's tomboi clothing, hair and sense of style,[39] nothing has been stated regarding her sexual identification. In one sense we can see this deferral of sexual identification as another instance of media packaging, but as Evelyn Blackwood points out in an article exploring the complexities of tomboi identification using ethnographic data from West Sumatra, tomboi 'definitions of self contest the coherence of both lesbian and transgender identities as they are represented in Indonesian and Western LGBT discourse.'[40] We can thus read the ambiguity of Mitha's tomboi subjectivity as a reflection of the diverse and dynamic influences that shape the sexual subject positions of tombois.
  24. Perhaps this ambiguity is one reason why tombois are not as visible in public culture as waria, who are transgendered male-to-females. Blackwell notes that 'waria are well-known to most people, from their work as wedding planners or hairdressers, from their fashion show performances or their roles in popular forms of Javanese theater and on television series.'[41] Boellstorff also writes that 'waria and tomboi are not seen as parallel in the way gay and lesbi are. This is because the waria subject position is part of public culture to a vastly greater degree than the tomboi subject position: for most Indonesians the word tomboi still refers to girls who do things boys are expected to do, like climbing trees.'[42] The female-identifying-as-male's absence in public culture speaks volumes of gender politics in Indonesia, where the biological male generally has the most freedom to express sexual desire, even if it runs counter to hetero-norms. Yet, as Boellstorff is careful to observe, the prominence of waria in society 'does not translate directly into acceptance: waria are acknowledged, but to a great extent acknowledged as inferior.'[43] This degradation that becomes possible when a subject-position is acknowledged demonstrates the stakes of recognition. There is a certain safety of being a ghost, a forever/impossible body that can only express its desiring subject position in private or via layers of obfuscating friction. Of course, their reduced presence in public culture, in contrast to individuals who are gay or waria, is not only a safety mechanism but also a symptom of the inability of lesbi and/or tomboi desire to be made intelligible in accordance to public cultural norms;[44] a symptom of lesbi and/or tomboi desire exceeding kodrat wanita—the heteronormative social and familial expectations of women.[45]
  25. The question arises as to whether these excesses, these subjectivities and desires that are unintelligible, that cannot be subsumed or coded according to public cultural norms, are merely rendered benign and erased or if they have productive value. In Undoing Gender, Judith Butler notes the regulatory function of gender norms in producing gender intelligibility: 'To veer from the gender norm is to produce the aberrant example that regulatory powers (medical, psychiatric, and legal, to name a few) may quickly exploit to shore up the rationale for their own continuing regulatory zeal.'[46] At the same time, conceptions of gender and its norms are never static; they change over time and space.[47] Power regulates intelligibility, thereby producing an unintelligible 'outside' of itself. The excesses permeating the 'outside' shape and are shaped by the fluid boundaries of intelligibility. In regards to queerness in Indonesia, measurements of the productive capacity of unintelligible subject positions will vary according to different contexts. Yet, as a regular and prominent presence in the mainstream entertainment media—especially on television, appearing on talk shows, entertainment news shows, performing live for music programs and also in festivals, winning 2009 Inbox Awards[48] for 'most requested new artist' and for 'longest stay in top position' with the video for Cinta Terlarang—The Virgin puts pressure on normative codes of desire in public culture through the excessive desiring subject positions woven into their lyrics and performances. Through simultaneous references, God and heresy, depictions of femininity and gender that are both conservative and transgressive, expressions of desire that cohabit both hetero- and homosexual subject positions, the duo simultaneously perform and undo normative disciplinary structures. The song's generation of these productive frictions not only exposes the provisional and malleable nature of normative disciplinary structures, but it (the song) also exhibits the new subjectivities that can form by occupying and working dialectically along normative boundaries. The Virgin is neither wholly 'inside' (safe, normal, understandable) nor 'outside' (transgressive and unintelligible): the song's depiction of same-sex female desire may remain excessive to most of the listening public, but this excess does have an impact.
  26. The public recognition of The Virgin may not explicitly include or exclude the recognising of same-sex desires that permeate the song's excesses, juxtapositions, word games and paradoxes. In other words, the song proliferates a multiplicity of subject positions, both radical and conservative, that make it impossible to fix upon which perspective it privileges, thereby freeing Mitha and Dara from the classifications that enable regulation and discipline. There is, in other words, power in working under the radar, although the violence that forces one under the radar must not be overlooked. Indeed, women who veer from heteronormative subject positions are limited in their modes of expression, but Cinta Terlarang represents one such mode that clears space to portray a radical subject position that exceeds regulation:

        Mengapa cinta ini terlarang
        Saat ku yakini kaulah milikku

          (Why is this love forbidden
          The moment I am certain you are mine)

    Any interpretation becomes forbidden the moment we are certain of it, since the song proceeds to insist on alternative perspectives and interpretations. Together, these interpretive frictions preclude the fixture of subject positions in the song, which is a strategy that helps the song simultaneously inhabit and flout the regulating structures of moral normativity.
  27. The various and interchangeable subject positions in the song are sensationally depicted in the video for Cinta Terlarang, which seemed almost omnipresent on Indonesian television throughout the summer of 2009.[49] The video narrates two simultaneous instances of forbidden love: a same-sex relationship between two girls and an adulterous affair between a girl and her brother-in-law. The video begins with Dara portraying a girl moving to the home of her older sister and sister's husband, a home where Dara, too, will live. While the song moves gently in the background in anticipation of the melancholic peak of its first chorus, Dara has an animated and amicable dinner with her sister and brother-in-law. The next scene shows Dara being taken to school by her brother-in-law who, after Dara exits the car, watches wistfully. Meanwhile Mitha's character arrives to school on her motorcycle flaunting tomboi features, such as her masculine clothes and haircut. After school, while Mitha hunches over her parked motorcycle brooding, Dara comes by and they have a short conversation, before Dara walks off and enters her brother-in-law's car. As the car pulls away, Mitha's eyes follow Dara longingly while Dara returns her look with a shy smile. The camera then returns to Mitha's face and lingers there to make explicit her character's desire. Next the girls are hanging out at Dara's new home, singing together, talking and playfully wrestling, until Dara leaves the room to get a beverage from the kitchen. In the kitchen, Dara's brother-in-law surprises her from behind with an embrace, to which Dara shyly submits. In this half-embrace, the two of them fail to notice that Mitha, having followed Dara, witnessed the scene from the kitchen doorway. With anguish in her face, Mitha quietly exits. In the following scene, Dara's brother-in-law secretly caresses Dara's hand while her sister (his wife) is in the room, and the final scene shows Dara and her brother-in-law alone in his parked car in the rain. This scene is only briefly shown and, because of the rain and darkness, it is unclear what specifically is happening, but viewers can assume that something truly terlarang is about to occur. As this narrative unfolds, it is inter-cut with a scene of Mitha (with guitar) and Dara standing back to back and performing on a small, slowly rotating stage, in which only one of them can face the camera at the same time.

        Mengapa cinta kita tak bias bersatu
        Saat ku yakin tak ada cinta selain dirimu

          (Why can't our love be united
          The moment I'm sure I love only you)

  28. The video's narration of an adulterous love with a brother-in-law introduces another explicitly heterosexual dimension of forbidden-ness that only adds more friction to the mix, preventing any lasting union of meaning. Just as the song makes concessions to heteronormative sensibilities through references to God, by avoiding direct references to same-sex affection through gender-neutral pronouns, and suggesting a body/soul division, the video conforms to hetero-norms through sensationalistic depictions of adultery and same-sex desire, which are placed side-by-side. Indeed, there is a rendition of female same-sex desire in the video, but we must ask whether its presence is worth these concessions, particularly those that construct the feminine subject within the structures of kodrat wanita, as passive, absent and thoroughly vulnerable.
  29. As we look more closely at this video, it is useful to consider the structure of the forbidding agent in relation to the lover and beloved in each forbidden relationship depicted: the adulterous and the same-sex. In the former, the lover is actually the brother-in-law who draws the passive, yet willing, Dara into a romantic affair. The forbidding and regulatory structures in this relationship are, broadly speaking, the institutions of marriage, religion, familial responsibility,and normative social conduct. In the relationship between the two women, Mitha is the lover, Dara again is the passive beloved, and what forbids their love are all the above factors plus heteronormative sexual institutions. The love between two women faces greater obstacles and ultimately fails in the video, as the brother-in-law's affection wins out in the final scene. Despite the greater ideological resistance to same-sex desire, when compared to adultery, I wonder if other viewers found themselves more sympathetic to Mitha than the brother-in-law as the lover, as I did. I wonder if this juxtaposition of two forbidden loves—same-sex and sister-and-brother-in-law—is meant to elicit a more positive response to this homosexual relationship in comparison to the adulterous relationship. It is difficult to answer this question, since The Virgin members are careful not to speak too explicitly about the lesbi tones to their music and appearances; yet, even if we interpret this video as presenting lesbianism favourably in relation to adultery as the more palatable of two modes normative transgression, this message alone hardly provides traction for any movement that promotes progressive sexual politics.
  30. The absence of feminine agency in the Cinta Terlarang video also offers concessions to heterosexist and phallocentric domination. While Dara's character is the feminine beloved in both forbidden relationships in the video, her compliance to every advance foregrounds feminine passivity. Also curious is the facile dismissal of Dara's sister, the other primary feminine character in the video, as Dara shyly responds to her brother-in-law's advances. The character of Dara's sister is reduced to her function of being the violated sister and wife, a function necessary to mark Dara and her brother-in-law's love as forbidden. In much the same way kodrat wanita identifies women through their service to the husband and family, the video objectifies femininity, putting it to service for its narrative ends. Dara's feminine passivity in the face of the masculinity of Mitha and her brother-in-law overshadows whatever bonding may exist between Dara and her sister. These concessions to conservative gender politics that posit active masculinity and passive femininity, even between same-sex lovers, may frustrate the progressive-minded, but we must ask whether this song and video would reach the same large audience without including something to mitigate the impact of the depiction of same-sex desire.
  31. Perhaps the most radical element of the Cinta Terlarang video is the physical chemistry between Mitha and Dara. The singers touch each other throughout the video, whether within the video's narrative as they wrestle and play together while at Dara's home, or in the inter-cut scenes where they perform the song on the rotating stage. In these performance scenes, each members of the duo stands facing in opposite directions, their backs always touching—sometimes they even hold each other's hands. Despite this touching, they never face each other, as if to disallow the realisation of any affection between the two performers. Still, these performance scenes make up the bulk of the video and, regardless of how we measure the video's concessions to heteronormative positions of gender and desire (the brother-in-law provides this outlet), the singers unapologetically flaunt affectionate, same-sex physicality.

        Tuhan berikan aku hidup satu kali lagi
        Hanya untuk bersamanya
        Ku mencintainya sungguh mencintainya

          (God gives me love once again
          Only to be together with nya
          I truly love nya, absolutely love nya)

  32. As the song begins its climactic final chorus, once again deploying nya to invoke the interpretative friction that serves as a sort of packaging for the song's radical elements for mainstream circulation, it is important to consider the other ways the song and its associative imagery become packaged as commodities. Karl Marx's famous theorisation of the commodity fetish usefully describes the masking of relations that go into producing, circulating and consuming commodities. In Capital, Marx comments on the commodity's mystifying quality: 'To the producers…the social relations between their private labours appear as what they are, i.e. they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material relations between persons and social relations between things.'[50] Commodities emerge to stand in for social relations, masking the social particularities that truly go into production and, upon entering the market in relation with other commodities, assume a life of their own.[51] While this mystification has enormous implications regarding the exploitation of human labour, it also describes the network of people (producers, managers, performers, stylists, publicists) and cultural institutions (sexual politics, religious factors, global and local traditions) that ossify in the creation and circulation of The Virgin as a commodity. Thus, through the commodity, and the structures that overdetermine it, an additional register of obfuscation that simultaneously threatens and enables the depiction and dissemination of same-sex desire and sexuality is provided.
  33. The fact that a commodity's 'exchange value' is only realised once it is exchanged for money,[52] a moment predicated on the buyer's recognition of this value, illustrates the precarious status of the commodity. Should factors external to a commodity's production unexpectedly lower its price and/or demand, the capitalist producer suffers financial losses that can include not only the surpluses generated through exploited labour but also his or her original invested capital. Taking these concerns into the mainstream entertainment media where moments of exchange tend to be dispersed and abstract, from online or store purchases of music to a music program's sale of advertising, commodities remain unstable. If a band alienates its audience or agents at any node of circulation, the value of the band as a commodity can dissipate. Thus, The Virgin must negotiate the friction between transgression and consumptive capacity. Certainly the mainstream media is drawn to some degree of provocation, especially in popular music, as long as the audience and sponsors are present. Yet, when cultural transgression is so strong that it becomes resistant to circulation, the performers must redirect their music for more underground circulation, if they find an audience at all. Because transgressive-ness runs, by definition, counter to cultural norms, and is thus resistant to circulation, artists will have to consider what must be given up, sanitised and reshaped to enter into circulation.
  34. Throughout this essay I have shown a number of ways a depiction of same-sex female desire is masked in Cinta Terlarang, arguing that the very act of masking effects productive tensions that are capable of shaping subjectivities in unexpected ways; however it is also possible to read the song and video as a complete capitulation to commodified and sanitised expressions of female sexuality. In addition to many points considered in this essay, this latter reading might suggest that the very fact that both Mitha and Dara are attractive young women whose public image is thoroughly commodified, enables both to be objectified and desired in a number of ways that undoes any same-sex tension. Some might even interpret The Virgin's depiction of same-sex desire as conforming to a male fantasy of attractive women experimenting in forbidden desires. The fact that a Russian duo, T.A.T.U., rose to international stardom with songs about lesbian desire and videos showing the two singers sharing long kisses, only adds to this sceptical interpretation of Cinta Terlarang. Several years into their careers, T.A.T.U. revealed their public relationship was only an act; both were heterosexual, and had been pretending to be lesbians to sell records.[53]
  35. While a healthy scepticism is important when interpreting a song like Cinta Terlarang, to dismiss the song entirely would also do away with all its productive friction. These frictions emerge in the multiplicity of interpretations and subjectivities that are simultaneously posited and then undone in the song and video, and they are productive because they enable the dissemination of counter-normative sexual beliefs and practices in the mainstream media that suggest the possibility of the opening up of Indonesia's mainstream entertainment media at a moment when the presence of extremist groups calling for a tightening of moral codes is increasing. As we become aware of the friction that destabilises normativity, we also recognise the stakes of working through (in/alongside/against) disciplinary structures. There is room to wiggle and express radical-ness, but this space demands that we work for it: that we locate the frictions along the boundaries between the acceptable and forbidden, forever.

        Rasa ini sungguh tak wajar
        Namun ku ingintetap bersama dia
        Untuk selamanya

          (This feeling is really indecent
          Although I want to stay with dia


    [1] I would like to thank Cynthia Franklin for her comments on an earlier draft of this essay. The views expressed in this article are my own.

    [2] The Virgin, Cinta Terlarang, Lyrics Cameria Happy Pramita. RCM, 2009. The English translation of the song presented here is my own. The lyrics appear in this essay in the sequence in which they are performed.

    [3] By mainstream media, I refer to the entertainment media institutions run by the government and corporations that are directed at the broadest of audiences. These nodes of media circulation are ubiquitous for both active and passive consumption. The cultural influence of the mass public media is especially strong in Indonesia, even though it is still relatively quite young: see Ariel Heryanto and Vedi R. Hadiz, 'Post-authoritarian Indonesia: a comparative Southeast Asian perspective,' in Critical Asian Studies, vol. 37, no. 2 (2005): 251–75.

    [4] Jamison Liang, 'Homophobia on the rise,' in Inside Indonesia, 100 (April–June 2010), Online:, site accessed 8 August 2012.

    [5] Paul de Man famously observes the text's inherent conflict between grammar and rhetoric, which grate against each other to bar any fixture of truth or essence. See Paul de Man, 'Semiology and rhetoric,' in Diacritics (Fall 1973): 27–33, p. 30).

    [6] Michael Nieto Garcia, 'More than just sex: three women authors take the Indonesian literary world by storm,' in Inside Indonesia, vol. 80 (Oct. –Dec. 2004), online:, accessed 8 March 2012.

    [7] See Tom Boellstorff, 'The emergence of political homophobia in Indonesia: masculinity and national belonging,' in Ethnos, vol. 69, no. 4 (December 2004): 465–86; and Alison J. Murray, 'Let them take ecstasy,' in Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 40, no. 3 (2001): 165–84.

    [8] Olivia Rondonuwu, 'Indonesia's constitutional court defends pornography law' in Reuters (25 March 2010), online:, accessed 8 August 2010.

    [9] 'Bandung sexy dancers busted for "stirring desires",' in Jakarta Globe (5 January 2010), online:, accessed 24 May 2010.

    [10] Adi Warsidi, 'Aceh Barat rutin razia celana ketat,' in Tempo Interaktif (24 June 2010), online:,20100624-258118,id.html, accessed 8 August 2010.

    [11] 'Indonesia rounds up "beach boys" over gigolo film,' in (28 April 2010), online:, accessed 8 August 2010.

    [12] 'Ariel gets 3 years, 6 months in prison,' in Jakarta Post (31 January 2011), online:, accessed 1 February 2011. See also, 'Apa alasan penahanan Ariel?' in (23 June 2010), online:, accessed 8 August 2010.

    [13] Liang, 'Homophobia on the rise.'

    [14] B.J.D. Gayatri, 'Indonesian lesbians writing their own script: Issues of feminism and sexuality,' in Amazon to Zami: Towards a Global Lesbian Feminism, ed. R. Reinfelder, London: Cassell, 1996, pp. 86–97, p. 90.

    [15] Dédé Oetomo, 'Patterns of bisexuality in Indonesia,' in Bisexuality and HIV/AIS: A global perspective, ed. R. Tieldman, M. Carballo and A. Hendricks, Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1991, pp. 119 – 26, p. 125.

    [16] For an in-depth summary and critique of Cartesian dualism, see Paul Ricoeur, 'Crisis of the Cogito,' in Synthese vol. 106, no. 1 (Jan. 1996): 57–66.

    [17] Privacy plays an important role in the forever/impossible formula, for it supplies the safe space where the lover's fantasies can play out without interference from others (and others' bodies). This privacy and sterility also subdues non-conventional or potentially subversive forms of affection. The body-less beloved never enters public space, and therefore remains, as idea, merely a placeholder for any manifestation of a relationship.

    [18] Alit Bagus Ariyadi, 'The Virgin: lesbian? Cuekin Aja,' in Indonesiaselebriti (2009), online:, accessed 8 March 2012. Photographs of Mitha wearing the jilbab are also easily accessible online.

    [19] Luce Irigaray, This sex which is not one, trans. Catherine Porter, Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985, pp. 186–87.

    [20] Saksia E. Wieringa, 'The birth of the New Order state in Indoneisa: sexual politics and nationalism,' in Journal of Women's History, vol. 15, no. 1 (2003): 70–91, p. 75.

    [21] See the above discussion of the pronoun nya. 'Dia', also, is a gender-neutral third-person pronoun.

    [22] 'Dhani gelar konser "Free for Ariel",' in Jawa Pos National Network (5 August 2010), online:, accessed 8 August 2010. See also, 'Wearing miniskirts is a human right: Dhani,' in Jakarta Post (24 September 2011), online:, accessed 26 September 2011.

    [23] Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid and C. Holland Taylor, 'In Indonesia, songs against terrorism,' in The Washington Post (7 October 2005), online:, accessed 8 August 2010 This link is still not working. See also, 'Police: Ahmad Dhani mail bomb sent on same day as other three,' in Jakarta Post (17 March 2011), online:, accessed 17 March 2011.

    [24] Ariyadi, 'The Virgin: lesbian? Cuekin Aja.'

    [25] Ariyadi, 'The Virgin: lesbian? Cuekin Aja.'

    [26] 'Dara The Virgin on Mamamia,' in MissGosip (3 April 2010), online:, accessed 24 May 2010.

    [27] Ariyadi, 'The Virgin: lesbian? Cuekin Aja.'

    [28] Tom Boellstorff, The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005, p. 172.

    [29] Murray, 'Let them take ecstasy,' p. 169.

    [30] One example of cultural homogenisation spurred by globalisation can be seen where bands adopt styles and sounds from various international music scenes in ways that overwrite their own local and cultural specificity as artists in Indonesia. See Brent Luvaas, 'Dislocating sounds: the deterritorialization of indie pop,' in Cultural Anthropology, vol. 24, no. 2 (2009): 246 –79). Of course, Boellstorff is arguing the opposite; that cultural specificities actively shape the ways same-sex desire is conceived and expressed in Indonesia, shedding notions of homosexuality as a homogenous, transnational subject position.

    [31] Martin F. Manalansan IV, 'Race, violence, and neoliberal spatial politics in the global city,' in Social Text, vol. 23, nos 3–4 (2005): 141–55, p. 143.

    [32] Evelyn Blackwood, 'Transnational discourses and circuits of queer knowledge in Indonesia,' in GLQ, vol. 14, no. 4 (2008): 481–507, p. 501.

    [33] While these differences are many, Boellstorff notes that one of the most startling differences is that Indonesian men are prone to marry.

    [34] Boellstorff, The Gay Archipelago, p. 6.

    [35] Boellstorff, The Gay Archipelago , p. 216.

    [36] Boellstorff, The Gay Archipelago , pp. 82–83.

    [37] By 'common usage,' I refer to common usage of gadis in Indonesia and virgin in the United States. I am sure there are more similarities and differences one could draw by playing with spatial and generalised scales of the deployment of these terms.

    [38] Ariyadi, 'The Virgin: lesbian? Cuekin Aja.'

    [39] Mitha states that she prefers to dress in the tomboi style. It is also worth noting that various blogs have posted images of Mitha 'before' she became a tomboi, including an image of her wearing the Muslim jilbab (see Ariyadi, 'The Virgin: lesbian? Cuekin Aja.').

    [40] Blackwood, 'Transnational discourses and circuits of queer knowledge in Indonesia,' p. 484.

    [41] Blackwood, 'Transnational discourses and circuits of queer knowledge in Indonesia,' p. 488.

    [42] Boellstorff, The Gay Archipelago , p. 163.

    [43] Boellstorff, The Gay Archipelago , pp. 11–12.

    [44] Oetomo, 'Patterns of bisexuality in Indonesia.'

    [45] Wieringa, 'The birth of the New Order state in Indonesia: sexual politics and nationalism.'

    [46] Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, NY: Routledge, 2004, p. 52.

    [47] Butler, Undoing Gender, p. 10.

    [48] The Inbox Awards are the yearly awards given by the popular morning music show on the national television channel, SCTV, titled Inbox.

    [49] The video for the song is easily accessible from a number of sources, including online:

    [50] Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes, London: Penguin Books, 1976, p. 176.

    [51] Marx, Capital, p. 164.

    [52] Karl Marx, Gundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nocolau, London: Penguin Books, 1973, p. 259.

    [53] Jessica Coen, 'The diminishing returns of faux-lesbianism,' in New York Magazine (28 July 2008), online:, accessed 25 May 2010.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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