Have you seen Beyonce in a pin-striped onesie? I have.
Take a look and see for yourself. Apologies for the blurry image (it’s hard to capture those foxy thighs in motion).
Wait a minute. Now that this beauty slows down and we observe her more closely, isn’t she too short to be Beyonce? And if we note that bulge between the legs and hastily-stuffed brazier, are we sure we’re even looking at a woman?
WELCOME to the House of Raminten: home to Yogyakarta’s only cross-dressing cabaret.
In the States you’ll find a wide array of variety shows catering to all tastes in provocative entertainment, but here the stage is reserved for cross-dressing ladyboys known as the “waria”. These are no feeble-hearted honeys. Waria belong to an independent gender category stigmatized for swatting off society’s norms of modesty and gender identity.
With societal alienation – perhaps – comes certain freedoms. While ordinary women in Yogyakarta draw flak for wearing blouses revealing too much arm, waria parade the streets in sequined mini skirts and crop-tops, dancing like Posh Spice for the bored public. Set apart from ordinary society, they establish their own standards for conformity and acceptance. Dismissed? Habitually. Objectified? Absolutely. But even the tight-lipped religious fanatics admit that the warya have the bravest hips in the whole damn country.
Now where were we? Back in the House of Raminten, disco lights blink across a slick stage. What marvelous creatures will emerge from the cloud of artificial fog?
ACT 1: THE PRINCESS TRIO
The fog lifts and we see three figures kneeling in gold light. A gong sounds. A gamelan recording rolls deep. The dancers rise and we see they are dressed in traditional Javanese costumes, their thighs confined in floor-length fabric, torsos corseted and vested in gold embroidery. The dancers bend back their wrists with practiced contortion, flowing through the ritual-like dance like women inching through a trance.
Women in Java have performed in this way for centuries, swaying in feminine company through a structured dance form known as “Tari Gambyong.” On the dancers’ faces, layers of makeup distract us from the square-shaped jaws, which sway coyly back and forth as if to seduce suitors of a kingly stature.
ACT 2: THE LADY OF SPILLING BREASTS
The fog machine spouts again. From the cloud emerges a half-naked madonna with plastic breasts sculpted so that they sag down to her belly-button. The deflated chest shimmies back and forth while legs prance across the stage in heels that could spear a whale. Do we laugh? Cry? The performer climbs over the railing separating the stage from the audience and humps the leg of an unsuspecting young man. The rest of the audience hoots, laughing at the crudity: liberating, especially if it is inflicted upon someone else.
ACT 2: USHER’S LOVER
An Indonesian Usher shuffles around in a fly suit, his mouth hovering wide over his microphone. From stage left comes a beacon in a white gown. The two figures move towards each other, brought together by a formulaic passion we have seen repeated on television. We wonder if these performers understand the lyrics to which they sync their lips, and, if they could actually sing to one another, they would tell us what we really want to know: the secret complications of a waria in love.
ACT 3: THE GHOST OF VOGUE MAGAZINE
Imagine if a Lithuanian Christmas tree hobbled around, waved drapery up and down, and mouthed Cher’s lyrics like a blowfish, and you’ll have a good sense of this waria’s presence.
Oops! She almost trips up the stairs. Gracefully, she frees one of her sleeves, momentarily trapped beneath a shimmering silver heel. Whoa! Danger averted. Again our tree-cock levers her arms up and down like a haunting robot on a runway.
ACT 4: PAULA ABDUL
Sexy finger wagging: right on rhythm. That’s about it.
ACT 5: DESPERATE K-POP SCHOOLKID
Indonesian pop isn’t nearly as innocent as it seems, especially since influential Korean and Japanese bands popularized the sexualization of cutesie culture. A child’s voice bleats romantic lyrics from the speakers. The bob-haired waria halts her pep to sit on the stage steps and spread her legs.
She asks, “Want to be my boyfriend?” And we say … yes?
Well that’s all for tonight, folks. Next week stay tuned for a South-Asian Fantasia and the Sweedish opera singer who can flip up her skirt and simultaneously nail vocal crescendos from Carmen by placing an entire microphone in her mouth.