Taylor Swift accepts the award for video of the year for 'Bad Blood' at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles, California, in this file photo. (Reuters Photo/Mario Anzuoni)

Sluts, Good Wives and Fake Feminists: How Women Are Commodified in Pop Culture


SEPTEMBER 04, 2017

Jakarta. It is an unsurprising fact that women have been objectified in mainstream culture, as films, music and literature often sexualize them to satisfy the male gaze.

However, indie singer Kartika Jahja, who is a feminist activist, said the industry trend has changed in Indonesia. The male gaze has shied away from the sexually appealing image and now favors the image of motherly women.

Kartika called it "the slut versus the good wife" phenomena.

"A fellow music industry player, who shall remain anonymous, said to me that in the past, famous female celebrities were those men could jack off to, but now they are the ones who are 'wife material,'" Kartika said during a panel discussion at Feminist Fest 2017 in Senen, Central Jakarta, late last month.

She added that in the American music industry for example, most female singers are made to fulfil men's fantasies by embodying an appearance and singing lyrics that emphasize their sex appeal.

Indonesia used to follow this trend, not only in music, but also in the film industry, where horror movies would feature foreign porn stars such as Maria Ozawa and Sasha Grey, just to attract the audience and sell tickets.

However, the trend has gradually declined in recent years. Since there is a rising social trend of getting married and having children at a young age, the image of young motherly figures, whether it be singers, actresses or any other kind of public figures, sells well.

"If someone wants to sell something, they won't care about norms or any '-isms.' They follow whatever brings in the money," said Kartika, who recently released a single titled "Tubuhku Otoritasku" ("My Body My Authority"), which conveys a strong message against sexual harassment.

The mass media also supports this trend. During her presentation, Kartika showed news clippings from local publications with headlines such as "pretty young moms" or "hot young moms."

"But we still see car exhibitions where the sales promotion girls are sexualized to be eye candy for visitors," Kartika said.

According to author and creative consultant Rain Chudori, the objectification of women continues, even in fiction.

Rain recalled how when she was growing up, male writers used to dominate the literary scene, thus the depiction of women and their life choices is biased, especially when it comes to sex.

Then there came a new literary movement in early 2000s called "Sastra Wangi" ("Fragrant Literature") consisting of female writers such as Ayu Utami and Djenar Maesa Ayu, who dared to break the tradition by writing sexual themes from the perspective of female characters.

"When women were trying to write about sex through the female gaze, it was somehow taboo and sensational. There was a disparity between female and male writers," said Rain, who wrote the short-story compilation "Monsoon Tiger and Other Stories."

Either way, the fact remains that women are still considered "objects" instead of "subjects" in real life and fiction.

In the music industry, few women are allowed to have executive roles and take control of their careers and the careers of other women, thus the male gaze lives on.

There are not many examples of female figures taking control of their careers. Kartika cited the example of American pop icon Beyoncé, who is often called "Queen Bey" because of her powerful persona, as one of few internationally known artists taking control of their careers.

In Indonesia, veteran singer Titiek Puspa is also considered as someone who has managed to be a "subject," instead of an "object." Titiek has survived the industry through Indonesia's Old Order, New Order, up to the present.

"Titiek Puspa always moves forward as a subject, not an object. She has full control of her career, regardless of whether you agree or not with her ways of being chummy with [Indonesia's first president] Sukarno and Tien Suharto [the wife of Suharto, Indonesia's second president]," Kartika said.

Real or Fake Feminists?

Another current trend is celebrities labeling themselves as feminists who speak against objectification, sexual harassment, unequal pay, among others – which raises a question: are all of them really feminists, or has feminism become a commodity?

"[The rising feminism] I see in the media now is a breath of fresh air, but I don't deny that there are many who use feminism as a commodity," Kartika said.

According to senior journalist Hera Diani, there are people who show what is called "palatable feminism," which is a simplistic interpretation of feminism.

"The palatable feminists don't delve further into what patriarchy means. They would still consider women who get married and become mothers as the ideal women, and the feminism tends to revolve around heterosexual relationships," Hera said.

This can be seen with social media users who like or repost feminist content to look cool, or celebrities who suddenly label themselves feminists without taking concrete actions.

Beyoncé has faced criticism regarding her women's empowerment lyrics. But at the same time, she is praised for representing women of color as well as raising racial discrimination issues to the stage, especially with her recent hit "Formation," which speaks against police violence towards black people.

On the other hand, there are singer Taylor Swift and actress Lena Dunham – who is also a member of Swift's girl squad – who are self-proclaimed feminists but are questioned over what they are really advocating for or against. Swift publicly declared that she is a feminist in 2014 and has promoted sisterhood with her squad, yet her years-long feud with Katy Perry raised questions over her "activism."

Even Emma Watson, who is the United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador for the HeForShe gender equality campaign, is considered dubious by some.

"Those who should be criticized are white pop stars. I personally think they should have no place in feminism. Emma Watson's movement is very superficial. She is a rich woman in Hollywood. As a brown woman in a third world country, that [her activism] is not important. Taylor Swift kind of endorses this women-against-women kind of thing, which I'm not really into. I don't look up to white feminists," Rain said.

Then again, which feminists are true to their hearts remain a question, but it is clear that the more women there are in the mainstream culture, or the more self-proclaimed feminists there are, they don't guarantee a compelling advocacy towards gender equality.

"Representations are important but they don't always represent feminism. They can be misogynistic because you don't have to have a penis to be a misogynist," Kartika said. "It's not just representations that are important but whether they create a new discourse."