Women’s Equality and the Silver Screen

On December 22nd Indonesia commemorates 1928 Women’s Congress, where 30 women’s organizations across Java and Sumatra gathered to fight for women’s equality in then Dutch Indies. How after 1945 independence both Soekarno and Soeharto managed to domesticize the day to a celebration of motherhood remains a mystery, just as debates between those who try to fix the misconception and those who wish to retain Hallmark-type Mother’s Day remain heated on our social media to this day.

Watching the annual spats around December 22nd took a backseat for me this year, as a much bigger fight against patriarchy has been waged in Hollywood. Mega producer Harvey Weinstein remains the largest culprit, by the Tinseltown power he wields and the extent of sexual harassment accusations, while numerous A-listers have been called out.

The opened floodgate is a stark contrast to the progressive universe projected on Hollywood’s silver screen lately. Animated female leads are no longer confined to frothy Disney princesses waiting for a prince, but on the footsteps of boundary-breaking Pocahontas and Mulan. Now little girls worldwide can look up to sailor Moana who proves herself equal to a much-worshipped male deity, archer Merida who stands her ground against fixed marriages, resourceful Poppy who storms into giants’ lair to free her troll folks, and wise Elsa who not only rises above different physical traits but also rules as a queen regnant. We’ve come a long way since 28 years ago, when mermaid Ariel showed no desire beyond marrying the prince she briefly rescued.

The superhero genre is showing more females kicking together with their male counterparts, as opposed to being sidekicks or arm candies. The latest Catwoman and Wonder Woman are free-willing agents who bring equal arsenals to the battle, just as The Avengers and X-Men heroines are. There were no women on the revered Jedi Council, but now the order’s very continuance hangs on a young woman who fights with the last troops led also by women. The new Wolverine is literally a little girl.

Hillary Clinton didn’t get elected, but female US Presidents exist from TV series Scandal to the sequel of Independence Day blockbuster. Real life accomplished women such as female African-American mathematicians at NASA and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham got their long overdue spotlight in Hidden Figures and Post, respectively.

So, while its big wigs continuously dwell in misogyny behind closed doors and its production statistics are yet to show more women on decision-making positions, at least Hollywood has promoted women’s equality better on its final products, which effects, given the digital age where visuals steal attention more than texts, shouldn’t be discounted. Makes me wonder about how our domestic film industry fares on the issue.

Recent local movies showcasing convention-challenging women that I could immediately think of were only Ini Kisah Tiga Dara, Kartini and Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts.

Movie financing problems aside, Indonesia actually isn’t short of remarkable women worth their stories splashed across the silver screen. The women behind the much-touted 1928 Women’s Congress, for starters. There was Admiral Malahayati who fought off Portuguese colonialization and whose name was immortalized on Banda Aceh’s port, and women’s equality activist Rangkayo Rasuna Said whose name was immortalized on a Jakarta’s downtown boulevard. Martha Christina Tiahahu rose against greedy Dutch colonialists from the original spice islands. 16th century Aceh Sultanate had four reigning sultanas, just as older Majapahit dynasty had rulers Suhita and Kencanawungu.

Our folktales are also abundant with great female role models if we want to dig deeper than the often patriarchal portrayal available. There is more to Calon Arang than an angry sorcerer with possible mommy issues. The Greek mythology has Neptune, we have Nyai Roro Kidul—whose reign over the Southern Seas offer better story than her supposed role as a virtual spouse of every Javanese monarch.

Beyond history and mythology, we have thoroughly modern millennials like Fransiska Dimitri Inkiriwang and Mathilda Dwi Lestari from Parahyangan University who have been on a quest to summit world’s seven highest mountains in recent years. Their phenomenal journey started with our own Jayawijaya’s Carstensz Peak in 2014, and after summiting five more including Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua and Denali, now they’re setting their sights on Everest. Mountain climbing on this level is beyond overcoming physical challenges, it’s also winning serious mental fights—stronger men have failed to accomplish what these 23-year-old girls did. When they summited Everest, and I have no doubt that they would soon, I hope someone make a movie about them. Nia Dinata did a good job re-portraying the modern sisters of Tiga Dara, perhaps she could turn our mountain girls into household names next?

Happy Women’s Day, my Indonesian sisters. Women’s equality still has got a long way to go, even more so in Indonesia, but at the very least we could start with better role models for our daughters and nieces to look up to. Let’s cheer for less sexual harassment in any movie industry and more progressive female characters on any silver screen.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/12/23/urban-chat-womens-equality-and-the-silver-screen.html

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