Challenging New Order’s Gender Ideology in Benyamin Sueb’s Betty Bencong Slebor: A Queer Reading


The representation of sexuality in Soeharto’s New Order Indonesian films mainly centred on the female reproductive role, and tended to present the nation as constructed of heterosexual families rather than individual citizens (Boellstorff, 2005). Under this formulation of gender ideology, all sexual practice outside heterosexual marriage could be seen as contradictory to the God-given nature of Indonesian citizens. Despite few representations, non-reproductive sexualities film-themes were produced and consumed. Released in 1978, Benyamin Sueb’s Betty Bencong Slebor became box-office hit in the late of 1970s and negotiated the state’s ideology that viewed cinema as a ‘vehicle for the creation of a national culture’ (Sen and Hill, 2000). This comedy film genre is criticising the mainstream perception of waria, male to female transgender (MtF) that is marginalized as a second-class citizen. Betty, the house maid waria in Bokir’s family, starred by famous comedian Benyamin Sueb, portrayed how gender identity is not a fixed identity; it’s merely a condition of doing straightness or doing queerness. Bokir’s wife feels blessed of having Betty in her family to resist Bokir as a womaniser. In this point, waria-ness is an alternative strategy to negotiate patriarchal system. Queer film reading especially Judith Butler’s theory on gender performativity will be used in analysing the film diegetic. The study finds that Betty Bencong Slebor can be seen as a cult film, considering the main protagonist and the film director is Benyamin Sueb as one of the greatest cult icons in Indonesia. As a cult film, Betty Bencong Slebor helps to understand the complexity, ambiguity and the harsh life of a wadam/waria, a marginalized group with a distinct identity. Betty’s gender fluidity offers a playful negotiation to New Order’s essentialist concept of gender binary system. This transgressive element confirms Ernest Mathijs and Mendik’s perspective (2007) that a cult film ‘rub against cultural sensitivities and resist dominant politics’.