Halic Conference, Men’s Studies 1


Remaking ‘Manhood’ and Re-imagining ‘Masculinity’

In Philippine Films

Aurelio S. Agcaoili, Ph.D.

University of Hawai’i

Paper (abridged version) presented at the 2008 Conference on Gender Trouble in Modern/Post Modern Literature and Art, Halic University, Istanbul, Turkey, April 17-18 2008.

There is gender trouble—in particular, male gender trouble—in Philippine cinema, whether this cinema is produced in the Philippines or in the diaspora. That trouble needs fixing in the form of remaking the prevailing and oppressive notion of manhood and re-imagining a liberating conceptualization of masculinity so that every Filipino man, following the prescription of Lee in At My Father’s Wedding, would be freed from the idealized and imprisoning Marlboro Man. In this way “a new masculinity” (1991:170) could be inaugurated. Lee’s clarion call, of course, is not a voice in the wilderness as more and more Filipino men are beginning to see the impotent trap of the old forms and paradigms of masculinity that they inherited. Popular cultural forms in the Philippines such as the cinema are potent carriers of both the old and the new paradigms. While these forms serve as a dubious medium for the insistence of the need to maintain the status quo, at the same time they provide a productive venue for articulating the silences of an oppressed, repressed, and suppressed male public. Of late, various cinematic expressions have plumbed the depths of the issue of male gender trouble and have posed challenges to this perennial contest of wills between stability and openness in the gender and sexuality question, and between tradition and the need for freedom in sexual expression and sexual identity affirmation. Many Philippine films have subtly provided an alternative view to the issues of masculinity and manhood by rendering the old definitions as obsolete and irrelevant, and by offering a new way to approach the complex issues of male-to-male relationships. While such cinematic representations are opaque at times, there are discursive clues such that the essentially conflicted and contradictory constructions of gender and sexuality are now being cross-examined, the age-old formulation of manhood contested, and the practices and performances of masculinity critically examined. Juxtaposed against the archival studies on the ‘male Philippine experience’ prior to the colonization experience of the Philippines in 1521/1565 when such an experience did not have the stamp of absolutism in patriarchy, authoritarianism in the official definition of sexual morality, and absurdity in moral dogmatism courtesy of the country’s four centuries of colonial experience under three colonizers, when the question of ‘male’, ‘manhood’, and ‘masculinity’—and sexuality and gender in general—were secondary to the question of what is human, we see here a heuristics of masculinity and manhood that is pre- and post-colonial as opposed to the colonial, traditional as opposed to the current need to catch up with the demands of the just and the good life for all people. This paper argues that models of ‘Filipino manhood’ and ‘Filipino masculinity’ are now shifting and unstable—and that this shiftiness and instability are fertile grounds for a new kind of discourse, and thus, for the struggle for a real, honest-to-goodness human liberation. The various contemporary expressions of Philippines popular culture can no longer completely and logically explain the current concerns, questions, and experiences of Filipino men whether they are in the Philippines or in the diaspora. The models inherited from—and as a result of—the country’s colonial experience can no longer satisfactorily account a more liberating view of gender, sex, and sexuality. And despite the entrenchment of Philippine cinema in the culture industry, many contemporary films have provided an alternative view for the remaking of manhood and the re-imagining of masculinity. This view poses a direct challenge to the institutionalization of repressive models of ‘manhood’ and ‘masculinity’ as carryover constructs of the country’s colonial experience. Today’s Philippine films remain a bundle of contradictions, true, but the same cultural products have begun to question whether such Western models particularly those premised upon patriarchal, ‘macho’, and Judeo-Christian thinking—and, to say the least, capitalist concepts of rugged individualism and profiteering—serve the purpose of opening up the argument for the possibility of ‘manhood’ and ‘masculinity’ that does not valorize the entitlements of men to the goods of social life but instead levels off all the rights of people in accord with a more egalitarian view of social relations and sexual identities. The tentative forms of questioning by the select films demonstrate the need to rethink of the currently received definitions and performances of manhood and masculinity; this questioning has also become the impetus for what is understood as a form of ‘remaking’ the very notion of manhood itself, and the urgency of ‘re-imagining’ masculinity, with that remaking and re-imagination essentially an act of revisiting and rethinking of sex, sexuality, and gender as not static constructs but fluid and dynamic expressions of personhood and identity. In effect, the films in question provide a template for a discourse on the need to look at Filipino men’s ‘selves’ and ‘identities’ and situate such a way of seeing from a refracted form of critical reflection afforded by contemporary popular cultural expressions.

The Films in Question/The Films Questioning the Concepts of Manhood and Masculinity

Scorpio Nights (1999) is a story of desire gone wild, with the main character, Andrew, a college physics teacher obsessed with a young student, Valerie—his student—whom he woos successfully. Pretty soon, the college finds this out, and Andrew is helpless, but obsessively pursues Valerie until he meets his violent death in the hands of the people, dying in a heap of garbage. It is as well a story of sexual conquest—and failure—as is a story of love gone wild, of passion and ecstasy at their peak. It is art and eros, thanatus and resurrection, eros and death. It is intimacy as its height and at its lowest, navigating both extremes and inviting the scorn of Catholic women, with sexual prowess exhibited for consumption. Ang Bangkero/The Boatman (1984) is the story of Felipe, originally a boatman who plied his trade in one rural town, and catering to tourists on the lookout for sexual encounters and trysts with brown men, ‘exoticized’ and ‘eroticized’ for their looks and for the kind of sexual service they could give to those who can afford to pay. He moves to the big city to become a ‘torero,’ a partner in a live sex show, and falls in love with another female sexual partner, Gigi. In the meantime, an American woman keeps him for his sexual services. Soon her boyfriend would find this out. The American boyfriend engineers his revenge by bringing Felipe to a boat, and in front of Susanne, the American woman, castrates Felipe. Ang Lalake sa Buhay ni Selya/The Man in Her Life (1997) is a film set in a rural town and takes its cue from the experience of Ramon, a closet homosexual and also a teacher of the place. Gossipers people the town, and soon Selya finds out that the man she married is a homosexual. Selya’s failed relationship with Bobby, her previous lover, leads her back to the arms of Ramon. She would declare to the people of the town that no matter what, Ramon matters to her because of the goodness of his heart; her man’s sexual orientation does not factor in the equation of domestic relationship. Macho Dancer (1998) is Pol’s story; it is also a story of unfulfilled male-male love between him and Noel. Pol, a teenager from the rural areas of the country is driven by an extreme need to help better his family’s lot; in the city, he ends up a kept lover of a homosexual American service agent. When the agent is done with his tour of duty in the country and recalled to his headquarters abroad, presumably the United States, he makes it a point to have Paul be kept—‘taken care of’—by another buddy, also a service agent type. But this arrangement of male-male surrogate love would not last. This pushes Paul to go full time selling his body until one day, he has to make a choice between redeeming himself or go the way of destruction. With the death of his best friend, Noel, in the hands of policemen, he knows he could not be a macho dancer forever. Orapronobis/Pray For Us (1989) is set against the euphoria of the early years of the Aquino regime. The film traces the story of a detained Catholic priest, Jimmy Cordero, who is involved in the clandestine movement, or what passes for one in the name of a protracted struggle of the masses. Upon his release during the second People’s Revolution, he joins a fact-finding mission investigating the continuing human rights abuses perpetrated by the military and its paramilitary forces. He soon finds out that in his past sexual liaison with Esper, a barrio maiden, she bears him a seven-year old son. Upon his release from prison, he gets out of the priesthood, gets married to Trixie, and settles into a comfortable middle class life. He devotes his time to cause-oriented activities and human rights advocacy work, only to be confronted by one fact: that the very reason why he joined the clandestine revolutionary movement has remained in place despite the new political dispensation. In the film, we witness the sundering of the country, with paramilitary forces and vigilantes becoming agents for counter-insurgency operations, and in whose conduct, with the blessings of the government’s armed forces, untold brutalities and militarization campaigns would visit many communities. The war, waged between the revolutionary movement and the government, is an ideology of violence held onto by men and their allies, with the Catholic Church unable to decide which side to take despite its obligation to pursue the ends of basic justice for the oppressed people, a central teaching in the more liberal and progressive interpretation of Christianity. American Adobo (2002) is a story of middle class-upper middle class college-educated Filipinos who called it quits with the country and migrated to the United States, and from there live and perform their ‘American’ and ‘Americanized’ lives. One of them, Gerry, would not be able to do so completely as he is perpetually hounded by the idea that his mother would be able to find out his sexual orientation. Gerry has always loved Mike, his classmate, and with whom he continued to have a regular ‘class reunion’, Philippine-style, during the American holidays. At some point, Gerry would reveal who he is to his other classmates who are exiles like him. He told of his love for Mike, a married man, but Mike, in turn told him that he has always loved him as a brother and that he would not be able to reciprocate the same love that Gerry has been giving him. Dekada 70/Decade 70 (2002) is portrayal of the life of an upper middle class family during the Martial Law period of the country. Julian Bartolome the husband, the quintessential ‘padre de familia’ defined by the dubious eternal verities of patriarchal culture and a machismo world—the eternal breadwinner in the mold of a hunter and gatherer in the primeval times—would keep his wife in the house. His word—like the word of the country’s dictator—is the law. He would soon be challenged by many of the haunting realities that attend to a country whose people can only live in fear and trembling in the face of the unspeakable excesses and oppressive practices of the dictatorial regime—practices that are meant to keep a façade of political normalcy and social progress in the face of human rights abuses, economic deprivation, and countless blighted lives. Emmanuel, one of his sons would join the revolutionary movement; another would join the United States Navy, the very nemesis of the revolutionary movement his brother previously joined; and another son would die in the hands of the military. In the end, Amanda the wife would confront Julian; she would tell him that she wanted out—out of his life.

Shifting Notions, Shifting Realities and Experiences

Such filmic themes and plots providing an initial reading of what is to be a man and how is it to be a male in the Philippines and in the diaspora are not common in Philippines films. What we have are men in their most human—but not necessarily most humane—conditions, with their power and powerlessness, their vulnerabilities and strengths, their tears and hopes, their erotic desires and capacity to inflict death, their stresses and hopes, their anxieties and inner peace. What we have, from Felipe to Gerry to Julian to Father Jimmy and the rest are exemplifications of masculinities that have been buried in history and by a culture that does not give respect to other notions of selves, identities, and personhood. None of the characters conformed to the idealized man of the capitalist and the colonizer. We see in the films the base in the male experience, the commingling of vice and another vice with no possibilities of a revelation of virtue in the obsessed lover in the Scorpio Nights, and another avenging lover in The Boatman. In American Adobo, (dis)placement in another land via the route of migration and exile does not guarantee that the homophobia in the land of one’s birth which is the same homophobia in one’s family will migrate and go on exile as well, as the hounding and haunting continues in New York for that son of a mother who cannot confront the real issues of his sexuality. Reared in a society with heterosexuality as a regulative ideal—with heterosexism and heteronormativity as moral frameworks for human relationships, family, and social values—the ‘American Adobo’ homosexual has to go through hell and look for ways for his soul to be purged and cleansed by coming to terms with himself, with his desires and wants, in effect, with what makes him live life to the full. The same holds for Ramon the teacher and homosexual husband, in The Man in Her Life: his basic goodness is what saves him, not his sexuality. It is not by accident that the term homosexuality came into a construction—and invention—at the close of the 19th century, the term by a Hungarian journalist Karoly Benkert/Karl Maria Kertbeny for the purpose of “promoting sexual freedom” (Ehrenstein 1998: 2). That purpose would invite a backlash in the succeeding centuries, with heterosexuality as a norm and eventually, a template for the building of societies, nation-states, and modern-day empires. The problem comes next when this term, originally a political statement attached to the desire for human freedom, became a defining principle for what constitutes heterosexuality as a norm, with homosexuality as the other, the othered Other, eventually clinicalized to refer to ‘abnormality,’ ‘excess’, and ‘immorality’, ‘unnatural’, ‘illegal’, and ‘sinful’. The difficult binary—a terrible oppositional concept and reality—in manhood and maleness in Philippines films is one anchored on having it all or having nothing, between an affirmed manhood and the abhorred pseudo-femininity bordering on the effeminate. Here, we see the bluster and bravado of being a powerful man exhibited to be idealized by Filipino men, and by extension, all men, making manhood a spectacle (Cohan 1997; Gerstner 2006; Farmer 2000), making screen masculinity and muscularity as ideals in themselves. In the films, we see how, in Macho Dancer, men are not equal (cf. Geetamjali and Chandirami 2005; Cohan 1993), and this inequality, as in the case of the power of the American boyfriend of Susanne in The Boatman, has served as the framework for a man-to-man relationship that is annihilating and subhuman, with the ‘macho dancer’ giving off his services to the American serviceman for a fee, and the boatman’s testicles offered by the American boyfriend in the altar of male dominance and supremacy. In Decade 70, a father of a family believes—even justifies—the untruths of an oppressive regime whose gospel is the salvation of the country from atheistic communism. The tragedy that visited his family would soon tell him that the propaganda of that powerful man, the president of his country who claims that he was destined to save the people, is an empty rhetoric rooted in vicious machismo and self-destructing megalomania. In Pray for Us, we have a cabal of men in their best and their worst: Bishop Romero of the Catholic Church has the temerity to ask whether Jimmy the priest stills believes in the Church’s God; the paramilitary men who are used as pawns in a larger war we call ‘low intensity conflict’ in the name of a foreign empire and a local ally; and the men who have no means to reclaim who they are, in death as in life, with summary execution, hamletting, militarization, detention, and brute force as ways to make them cower in fear. We see Jimmy Cordero cry a river, his dead seven-year old Camilo in his arms, the son killed by the military that are supposed to protect the people. We know what comes next: he would soon take up arms again and rejoin the revolutionary movement.

Screening the Filipino Male

As is the case of Western male screened, and presented in films, the theses of Cohan and Hark in Screening the Male (1993) and in Neale in Screen (1983, as both cited by Powrie, Babis, and Babington 2004) applies as well to the Filipino male as represented on screen: (a) that Filipino masculinity is not monolithic, hence, the plural is invoked here, referring to Filipino masculinity as masculinities instead; and (b) that Filipino masculinities as spectacles await consumption, engagement, derision, judgment, and rationalization (cf. Farmer 200). We see in the films the virtues of freedom, and the vice in not fighting for that very freedom that grounds who we are: male, female, and all other identities. In the Philippines of old, the dichotomies of the sexes were not the bases for meaningful human relationships; the anatomical accidents were dismissed as what mattered most was the community. What was more important, as in the case of the baglan/baglian/babaylan/catalonan (cf. Cullamar 1986), is what one offers to the community. It is that capacity to offer care and concern and collaboration that constitutes manhood and masculinity eventually. The trouble with manhood and masculinity in the films is that maleness has never been inhabited, affirmed, accepted beyond that maleness that is performed by actors of the state, by the actors of commerce and economics, by the actors of dominant culture, and by the actors of state power such as politicians and military people. Lang poses the challenge for the remaking of manhood and the re-imagining of masculinity when he says, “Although we (males) are inscribed within culture from birth, and there is a question of the roles played by genetics and biology, there is a sense in which we also make choices about how to inhabit our maleness.” (2002: xi) To ‘become’—or to ‘be’ a man, says Lang “involves looking at other men, seeing them in dramatic, narrative contexts, and identifying with them” (2002: xi). The films open up the door for a rethinking of what constitutes manhood and masculinity in the context of inequity, inequality, and social oppression. It reminds us of a gender trouble: Who is man enough and masculine enough in a situation where one man is the oppressor and the other the oppressed? When resources to economic well-being have not been fairly distributed such that one man can freely buy sexual services from another man, who is man enough in that unjust relationship? When in a social set-up fathers are made to believe in the words of the heads of social institutions such as the presidency, the military, and the churches even if such words are lies, where do we locate manhood and masculinity here? Unless issues beyond the psychological are factored in the attempt to remake man and re-imagine masculinity in the best of light, the dubious constructions (Dixon 2003) of what is to be a man, what is to be male, what is to be masculine will always be entwined with the oppression that comes with those constructions (Hames-Garcia in Anton and Schmitt 2007).

Conclusion: Redeeming the Filipino Male

Redemption and its questions in the hope of remaking manhood and re-imagining masculinity is a difficult work in a Third World country like the Philippines where oppression never wears off its welcome in the everyday life of the people. To redeem the Filipino male who is both the author and the victim of this vicious circle of oppression in its many forms demands a renewal of the vision of what it means to be a human being, one who is imbued with the capacity to care for others, the capacity to collaborate, not compete, with other people in addressing what ills their communities, and the capacity to help cure the ills of human relationship as a result of centuries of acquiescence with the inhumanity of the oppressor. We see hope in these films.


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