The Image of Women in Dangdut

In a number of writings on dangdut, this genre is said to reflect the life situation of a majority of people. For example, Andrew Weintraub wrote that the lyrics of dangdut songs relates to the everyday reality of ordinary people (2012: 93). Along with the representation of reality in dangdut, this music style also seeks to build an ideal concept of things – one of them relates to the image of women.

As it is in other countries, Indonesia has its own set of standards when it comes to women. This gender is often expected to carry out roles such as putting on an appearance to attract the opposite sex, being responsible for domestic affairs and for not being the main breadwinner, being passive and repressing their sexual expression. The lyrics in dangdut, conforming this traditional gender role, are made not only to appeal to audiences who identify their experiences with the words, but also to perpetuate the existing image of women. Women are expected to put on a great deal of effort in keeping a good appearance, and there are numerous songs that define this aspect.

Nasida Ria, a qasidah music group formed in the 1970s, implied in their song “Wajah Ayu Untuk Siapa” that women maintain their physique everyday, and they did it for men.

The suggestion that women put up an effort to stay beautiful is done for men can also be found in Siti Badriah’s “Lagi Syantik”, where she mentioned that women want to look beautiful only for their lover.

In regards to women not being the main breadwinner in a houshold, the song “Bang Jono” by Zaskia Gotik described that role. The following is an excerpt of the song’s lyrics… “Eee… Bang Jono why haven’t you come home?
You said goodbye to seek some fortune but now you’re gone
Eee… Bang Jono you’re only playing around
Mucking about looking for fun ignoring your family and forgets work
You said take care, baby. I’ll come home soon
Kau janjikan aku sebongkah You promised me a diamond, but even a bowl of rice is hard to find”

As evident in the words, men – in this case, Bang Jono – are the breadwinners, while women wait for their partners at home. The lyrics to “Bang Jono” also implied that women give birth to children who needs to be fed. Through these words a woman is depicted as one who should be caring for domestic matters, including rearing children. The message in “Bang Jono” is similar to that in “Bang Toyib”, a song first popularized by Ade Irma.

As a consequence of this traditional gender roles women are often perceived as golddiggers – chasing after men for their fortunes. These stereotypical women portrayed in the song “Colak-Colek” by Tarantula, a well-known group in the ‘70s, which contained the words “no money, no love”. Weintraub (2012) interpreted the words as an illustration to the commodification of sex and love within the younger community of people in that decade. A similar-themed lyric also found in the song “Abang Sayang” by Lina Lady Geboy: “My love, my dear love
Please bring some money home
If you don’t, don’t’ come home at all”

The lyrics of “Abang Sayang” are tangible with those of “Bang Jono” and “Bang Toyib”, both of which has been described earlier. Either if it is by choice or because the demands from the community, the domestic roles of women made them passive in terms of earning a living and financially dependent on men. These are the reasons why women are portrayed as materialistic creatures.

This stereotype arises because of a generalized reality. Weighing on this matter, Weintraub (2012) quoted Dr. Ayid Suyitno, author of “Musik Dangdut dan Eksesnya” (Dangdut Music and Its Excess), who stated that the lyrics of dangdut bluntly showed the harshness of reality, one of which was money being the reason for women’s infidelity.

Another interesting aspect about the portrayal of female dangdut singers is the contradictory lyrics in the songs they sing. While these singers sing songs with lyrical content that the struggles of women with domestic affairs and relying on men for a living, they themselves are the ones who opposed that assumption. Many female dangdut singers, although not all, are providers for their family who inevitably have to leave their children at home in order to work (Wallach, 2017).

However, when a woman enters the workforce, the experience they encounter does not necessarily akin to that of a man. So attached the role of a woman to domestic affairs that they need to take it into consideration when making decisions regarding their career. Take Elvy Sukaesih for example. She rose to fame in the 1980s, and was asked if she wanted to advanced her career and become a producer like the King of Dangdut, Rhoma Irama. This was her answer:
“I’m a woman. My moves are limited. Rhoma can write songs, play music, illustrates film score, act in films, now he’s a producer. If I pushed my career even further, I might destroy my marriage!” (Hoetabarat, 1980: 50 in Weintraub, 2012: 143)

The idea that women should prioritized household live is a notion long believed for generations. Even during the New Order era, Panca Dharma Wanita (the Five Obligations of Women) stated that women are the companions of men, the bearers of offspring and the educators of children, the overseers of a household, breadwinners and finally members of the community (Suryakusuma, 2012: 115). Yet, even when said to be breadwinners, women are not seen as the primary provider in a household, but an additional one, whose role remain lesser than a men – who are considered as the head of a household according to the 1974 Marriage Law. In line with the understanding of women developed during the New Order era, Rhoma Irama emphasized the division of traditional gender roles in his song “Emansipasi Wanita”. Although acknowledging women’s involvement in the country’s development, Rhoma Irama maintained his view in seeing women as mothers who should not took over the role of men (fathers). He continued on by linking youth’s moral degradation with women’s non-domestic roles, something that was not highlighted in most songs.

The duty of women as additional providers only adds to their burdens, making women’s career journey a rocky one if compared to men’s. What’s more, because of the entertainment industry’s demanding nature, women are often required to work well into late at night or even early morning.

This has an impact on how the community perceived women – some of whom still hold the believe that women who stayed out until late is not respectable. Which is why a songstress life is often associated with prostitution or other things that are considered a violation of religious rules.

Women are also expected to act indifferent when it comes to their sexuality. Virginity or the sanctity of women before marriage is glorified in Indonesia, based on both religious and traditional values (Bennet, 2005).

The idealization of women’s virginity was then promoted through popular culture such as dangdut. In the song “Jagalah Kehormatanmu”, Nasida Ria advises women to protect their purity—measured by their virginity. The group also illustrates the embarrassment and sadness of a woman who has lost that innocence. Although, in general, women’s sexual indifference are seen as a virtue, the world of dangdut became a place in which this rhetoric reinterpreted by various parties. Because the image of dangdut is closely related to sexuality, a number of dangdut singers try to convey their views on female sexuality that are not merely passive. Instead of being sexually apathetic, these singers flaunt their sexuality—both as personal sexual expression or commodities in order to build their careers.

Bennett, Linda R. (2005). Women, Islam and Modernity: Single women, sexuality and reproductive health in contemporary Indonesia. Oxfordshire: RoutledgeCurzon.
Suryakusuma, Julia. (2012). Agama, Seks dan Kekuasaan: Kumpulan Tulisan 1979-2012. Depok: Komunitas Bambu.
Wallach, Jeremy. (2017). Musik Indonesia 1997-2001: Kebisingan dan Keberagaman Aliran Lagu (Tini, transl.). Depok: Komunitas Bambu.
Weintraub, Andrew N. (2012). Dangdut: Musik, Identitas, dan Budaya Indonesia (A.B. Prasetyo, transl.). Jakarta: KPG.