Sexing the Nation: Articulating the Female Representation in Ishmael Bernal’s “Lagi Na Lamang Ba Akong Babae”
SEXING THE NATION: ARTICULATING THE FEMALE REPRESENTATION IN ISHMAEL BERNAL’S “LAGI NA LAMANG BA AKONG BABAE”1
It has become an obvious notion that films were regarded as a window to reality, or that it is a manifestation of reality fed on fantasy. The onset of many waves of directors gave way to multiple ages of film appreciation varying from the heavily censored film to the film that found its way through liberation and emancipation. In actuality, films catered into many aspects that did not center only on the intention of the filmmaker; as films are constantly affected by different contexts that force it to appear as a final commodity ready to be consumed by the people. There was a time in the history of Philippine film that filmmakers only followed what tended to be favored by the people or what is sure to be a “box-office hit” rather than plotting their own way to commercial and aesthetic success (or the non-commercial success, paved the way to the artistic maneuvering of the film as eligible for prestigious filmic awards)2.
Because of the reign of films only being classified as either commercial or non-commercial, films only gained a one-sided appreciation in the form of awards or in the form of monetary basis3. Films that were commercial will win no award possibly, but it catered so much to the public that it was accepted and rendered as a “maganda” or that which has an aesthetic quality because of the effects undergoing a superfluous reception by the mass audience. This is of course, against the formalist trend in the fallacy of affectivity which dictates that the effect of any medium, here in the form of a film, should not be a basis in the appreciation of the film’s quality but it should focus on the content solely4. The non-commercial one, on the other hand, is the film that goals to gather numerous awards but is often not winning any box-office because the audience wasn’t able to either understand it or the appreciate it because it did not fully cater to their expectations or as to what their consciousness wanted the film to appear as. Lacaba stressed that this is due to the onset of commodification and consumerism that he attacks the notion of the non-existence of the bakya5 crowd and articulated that there is actually what is called this type of crowd, that can also be coined as the “mass” crowd that affects the film industry at a great extent6. The ironic notion is that, the “mass” crowd is not filled with the reigning people, or the people of the upper class as a general notion people would think if associated with “popular culture” as articulated by Isagani Cruz’ essay, “Ang Kabastusan ng mga Pilipino.” The bakya crowd is actually a powerful class that did not need to struggle for any class ascension because they controlled the media already, and the power that were construed by them is the quantifiable aspect, not in complete quality. The notion of the non-existence of the bakya crowd according to some producers can be concluded that the power of the bakya crowd makes itself unknown, or to be non-existent7.
As articulated earlier, censorship also became an avenue of the many changes that a film can absorb. Censorship cannot be dismissed as a timeless office, or that which is not susceptible to changes depending on the context and milieu. In fact, historically, films and literature gained different censorships throughout time starting from Rizal’s two novels that were both published by the foreign press8. Censorship changed through time varying from the extreme way of censoring that even limited the display of violence and gore, to the films that paved the way to be an “escapist” trend that featured fantasies of the bakya crowd in the sexual world. Censorship became an intermittent challenge to many filmmakers that most of their works were devoid of its intended meaning, just like Bernal’s “City After Dark” which is originally named as Manila By Night but was renamed through the office of censorship because it went against the conception of Imelda Marcos’ “City of Man.”
Females were subject to different representations in the film history of the Philippines. The surge of bomba9 films undoubtedly objectified women as a commodity that is being catered to many male gazes and perverted minds. Women protruded their breasts as if it is a normal thing to be projected to the people, and spent sexual acts with male on the screen, arousing the audience with its titillating scenes. These type of films, of course, became only an avenue of the imagination that resisted reality, or that wanted reality to appear as such10. The Hispanization of the Philippines also gave way to the locking up of the female persona as the Birheng Maria, revealed through the power of Philippine machismo. In the history, it is portrayed that women served as the initiator of Christianity in the Philippines by the time the wife of Raja Humabon accepted the “Sto Nino” given by Magellan symbolic of the acceptance of the conversion of religion as well. Due to this “progenitor” mentality that was forcefully attached and then equipped by the Filipinos, women were boxed into the representation of the suffering one, or the women who cannot portray herself against the machismo culture, were she her attributes center on Christianity—chastity, perseverance, humility, and the like11. But even in this films, there is a discrimination among women, centering on many aspects of beauty, class struggle, and social relationships. In class struggle, we see the oppressive nature of the society that dictates the pauper as a female that waits her prince to be saved from the misery of poverty12 . Beauty almost prioritizes that which is not exoticized as a Filipino but rather casts women of American origin embodied in the persona of Gloria Romero. But the notion of film-makers should be also taken into consideration that film-makers were exclusively male during the 70s and that most of the crowd to be catered are also male, because of the machismo nature of the Philippines. Thus, it does not merit that a female should be nice or harboring exclusive qualities of being industrious or such, as even mirrored in Ishmael Bernal’s Pagdating sa Dulo (1972), everything is rooted for the fame and money. If the cast of Bernal’s film would appear as a woman deprived of what is culturally constructed as beautiful for the Filipinos during the 70s, no one would watch it (hyperbolically, as some would for unknown reasons) because it does not cater to the desire of the bakya crowd that a woman should embody beauty. The absence of a Caucasian blood deters a star from being casted for a major role, as those who have a native blood are more on the side of being comedians, just like how we make fun of the contemporary comediennes like Kakay, Pokwang, and others. The machismo culture of the Philippines centers completely on the idea of beauty to be of surfacial value, or that regards the value of the body greater than the personality13.
These being said, the paper does not goal, however, to be an in-depth study of the films that attack the femininity of the women during the 70s. This paper goals to form the constructed representation of women and how they are seen as objects of the oppressed, that originated from the many years of colonization by the Spaniards. This will construct as well on how the bakya crowd became the primary constructors of filmic appreciation of a certain film. This paper would focus on Ishmael Bernal’s “Lagi Na Lamang Ba Akong Babae” in which the title itself questions the construction of female identity or that which envelops the stereotype of femaleness. This paper would both analyze the surface value (or what is then projected visually) and then the substance or that which is being presented by actions or scenes in the film.
Man as the Locus of Innocence
The start of the film portrayed the anger of a wife because of her husband’s pambababae or search for a mistress. The anger of the wife of course intensifies with her words like “papatayin kita” or her desire to kill the mistress. In figure 1, we can see the husband stopping his wife from making any war even it is the man who first came in contact with the female. We can clearly see here how the man is imbued with much innocence that instead of him being the one punished for his wrongdoings, it is the mistress because of the faulty assumption of female seduction clustering into the male’s mind—that, the husband was only tempted by the provocative looks of the female and the anger of the wife intensifies clearly because of jealousy and insecurity that her husband is unable to look at her that way. This is a clear picture of what Virginia Woolf characterizes as female relations not embedded through harmony but always on social conflicts (deterred from lesbianism).
The Rural and Innocent Female
Even in the present time, it is the rural female we always see as somehow innocent or embodying a “Maria Clara” projection. It is true if we consider its implications that the Filipino women were seen as the acceptors of Christianity that instigated the machismo and Catholic culture of the Philippines. Because of this, we first see the manifestation of rurality which is very pre-colonial in nature as people were devoid of fully civilized life (as compared today) because of their savage nature and preference for the worship of deities and false gods (totems or idols). In Figure 2, we see the protagonist female carrying a batya, which characterizes her as a typical woman who washes clothes in the river. But the irony lies primarily that Alma Moreno here looks partly Caucasian, or that which is the harbinger of beauty. We see this in contemporary films that beautiful women are just turned into ugly being (e.g. Anne Curtis in Kampanerang Kuba) because it still lies with the mass crowd their preference for the lead role despite any ugly rendition made to their favorite star. The figure shows as well the innocence of the protagonist as she watches the rage of the wife from Figure 1 that she looks so innocent and deprived from any sexual perversions which is perhaps only on the surface as the substance is not yet portrayed.
One of the problems of the Philippines is that Filipinos tend to associate roles based on gender. Again, this is to blame to machismo culture that triumphs into the notion that male should do what is categorized as hard labor, and that the female should do what is associated with house works. Children will be used to the notion that teachers should be female as many teachers are really female, and some male teachers are homosexuals that leads to a construction of notion that what is rendered to be a teaching job should be exclusively female, and that if ever, a male would assume such role, he is reduced to his homosexual sense. In Bino Realuyo’s “The Umbrella Country,” we see the image of the yantok as a “straightener” or that which is the one responsible for transforming soft boys into real men, or how Daddy Groovie (the father in the novel) construes the maleness of a boy. In the Philippine setting, gender roles are constructed based on the roles people assume. Even the same novel constructs Estrella (the mother) as weak, silent, and unresisting because of her role as a wife. Figure 3 presents Alma Moreno as a waitress, which is typical jobs for female. We can even see on websites such as Jobstreet.com that there are seldom jobs that require “Male Only” or even dormitories and apartments requiring “Male Only” tenants. Some cellphone sellers in the website Sulit.com.ph attaches the label “lady-owned” to gadgets. This is not to fully say that females are empowered or rendered to be fully glorified in a sense. This is to say, sadly, the weakness of female—devoid of any strength or voiced resistance. Alma Moreno’s female gender as a waitress does not empower her, but rather buries her into the notion that she is not a resisting one, that male employers would find their Alma Moreno not resisting or easy to be controlled, that the men who needs to be services would find it easier to command Alma Moreno to get this and that for them. That, in its most absolute sense, females are associated with the house works—a typical maid or muchacha. The female is associated with such that it’s easier to order the woman to do jobs with due obedience. In fact, after this scene in this figure, the manager caresses Alma Moreno’s hand before she hands the change to the customers, and then another set of customers flirt with her but she is unable to resist because as a maid to her employer, it is considered to be “rude” to do any resistance or when you do, you are gonna be unemployed.
The waitresses in the restaurant are as well all thin, not because they are just the sole manifestation of beauty but because thinness equate to weakness, and then equal to obedience14. Obviously, thinness is also a manifestation of slight sexiness which is needed by the employer himself through his wandering gazes, as well as the customers. We can see that the body politics present in a restaurant actually matters, that it is not just a straightforward assumption that they need to be thin because they’ll be able to move properly. It is that the female body is commodified and appears to be a site of sexual pleasure for all males in the restaurant space. The female thinness serves many roles which are often unseen or subliminal in messages because it is only through the fixation of male gazes and perversion that the messages are then unraveled. We cannot, however, opt to force the female to design her own image because it will take courage and independence to do so, and so the female herself is forced to go with the flow of how the society sees her—a sexual meat15.
During sexual intercourse, we can always see that females are receptors of pain—that they accept it by putting herself as the “bottom” which is a sex position in general terms, or that which is being penetrated by the man’s power. In terms of pain however, the female was able to experience many harrowing points of pain come her menstruation (dysmenorrhea) even the unnatural ones like plucking the armpit hairs, wearing high-heeled shoes, and such are manifestations of pain for they are the preparation for the higher types of pain a woman will experience when she will be able to make love and have a family16. It is ironic, of course, as to why women is pleasured less when it is her who experience much pain. The idea is that the roles of females during sex is already fixed, already etched in the history of all histories, that women are the recipient of that manhood, the one being entered, the one receiving the pain greater than all the sets of pain she was able to experience, for it is a horror when the male assume the female role, that it humiliates the male prestige and the female identity17.
In Figure 4, Alma Moreno is being kissed all over by her man, but she is just there unresisting. She idealizes the power of being the bottom, sunk down from the deepest part of the sexual world. She accepts the man knowing that because she is sunk to the bottom, the man becomes her idealization of reaching the top—the climactic point of achieving her prestige as a woman, wanted by the male ones. She does not embody the female aggressiveness, the female who is excited to be penetrated or to receive a blow of man’s love. Alma Moreno here embodies the passive female of embodying a certain weakness. The problem here is that Alma Moreno can resist, can be the one to initiate the sexual intercourse, but she is encaged in the mentality of femaleness, on how culture was able to portray the male subversion of female’s mind towards sex, that she is to accept everything, because sex is not a form of pleasure, but a form of power, of authority, of the masking of the female persona into a weaker woman to accept the colonizer of her very own femaleness18. This is not to say that the female is but a role-player, but this is to emphasize that the female sensibility is so corrupted by the inception of machismo that she is using the past or history as her own way of sealing of feminine fate, which goes against Anzaldua’s notion in her book, “Borderlands/La Frontera” of forgetting the past (which is because of the Aztec conquest of Hernan Cortes to Malinalli or Malinche, that the female identity of the colonized or the female who submitted are rendered as puta, in the case of Malinche, “The Great Puta”)
The Human Mannequin
In the malls, mannequins are displayed with such sexiness and emphasis on its breast size to entice the female to look like them, to be like these mannequins who are so white and thin, and perfect that they want to be them that they want to replace their bodies with a mannequin one. This mentality is obviously straightforward or garnering critical opinions of high negations, however if the implications of the female dream towards sexiness and perfection is twisted, it is as if they want to venture on being a mannequin. A Korean-Pop Group, “SNSD” or Girls Generation had a music video for their song, Gee. The music video started with them displayed as mannequins then they danced with their music after. Obviously, they were displayed as mannequins because they are the embodiment of beauty and perfection, that they are the supreme idea of sexiness they want to be seen—the mannequin of femaleness. But the mannequin should not always be resorted to the mentality of a female towards her selfish motive, because there is a time that male themselves transform the woman into a mannequin by objectifying them as a form of clothes they wear, a watch they flash, or just basically, a human-size figure they want to boast to the people.
In Figure 5, Alma Moreno is actually dressing up and already combing her hair when her man went to her and told her why is she wearing such thing. Alma Moreno challenges herself and the world of course to truly see her as who she is, an attempt to display her own way on how she wants to be seen by the people which is equated to her own triumphant goal as a woman19. However, when her man went upstairs, he forces her to change what she wears, because this is obviously an idealization of the man’s desire to display Alma Moreno according to his likes, to render her as a mannequin to show to his friends because they are having a drinking session and he wants to exclaim to his friends regarding this “girlfriend” who is controlled and hopelessly manipulated by her man. Alma Moreno, using a simple dress and simple look to project herself to be natural is already beautiful, that she is already superb and breathtaking, but it is not according to her man’s standard as she is lacking, that she needs to go beyond the beauty that she had constructed, or that she have to succumb to the construction of beauty by her man20. The problem lies in the aspect that the woman is always subject to the gaze of the man, that she needs to adhere to beauty as not what she thinks but as to what the men thinks, as afterall, it’s safe to assume that Alma Moreno lives in a men’s world. The female mentality is then subverted to male control that she is truly a mannequin, a plastic, or a Barbie doll being continuously played by men. In this context, how can we problematize then, on how the female mentality is actually working when stripped away from the dehumanizing gaze and culture of machismo21?
This scene (Figure 6) from the film projects another “mannequinfication” of the female identity where is treated as a show. She projects herself to be beautiful and to be enticing to the men and she does her best to prove that she’s worthy to be brought back home for sexual gratification. She is being debased, however, that she is becoming a puppet or a circus show, a carnival girl that dances like an animal. Her costume even adheres to a leopard print, which is exotic or that can be seen in the wild safaris that constitutes her wild image dancing. She projects numerous images and like photographs, scattering them to the audience to be able to judge what would they see fit as a form of entertainment for them.
In this regard, we can see how the women are exoticized like safari girls or amazons who are hunted. They are animals who cannot even bare fangs but at the certain extent, fully are under the power of these male personae categorized as colonizers who are hunting these women to become their prized possessions, and to finally render them as a collective piece that they can display to people. Though inherent or intrinsic into a machismo power, the authority does not fully exclaim ownership, but it is power, or the ability to emancipate the woman from her savage mentality, or the ability of the man to strip the woman from her wild ways in order to be unresisting, in order to be fully maximized by the man through sex and pleasure—which is yes, very wild.
Hierarchical Classification of Femininity
In Figure 7, we can see Alma Moreno just staring, absorbing what her man continuously saying about her. In this scene, we actually hear from the man, “Babae ka lang, probinsyana pa. Ano ba ang kaya mong gawin?” (You’re just a woman, and rural girl even. What can you possibly do?). The notion is that the vague message of being “just a woman” is instilling that it is hard to construe what it means to be a woman. In the male psyche, the man has already defined femininity according to his beliefs, or to his sense of constructing the femaleness. Perhaps he constructed it as just a sexual object, a bearer of children and nothing more. She is just a condom that after its usage has been maximized, it is nonetheless thrown away and not reusable. The man inhibits the costume of wearing the uniform of authority—of a police, an army officer, a lieutenant, or a general. He enforces his own consciousness of power, and maximizing it to make a woman bereft of her own sexual consciousness and the only way to liberate herself from this evil is to strip the man his uniform, to remove his machismo thinking, and to strip is patriarchal notoriety away from him, which is deemed to be impossible and like a broken bridge, impassable—to the extent of denial of entry or authority in the first place to do so22. First, we problematize the definition of being a woman, and then we also problematize the definition of being a woman from the rural area. In actuality, both of these terms are neutral and do not actually render one’s identity to be degraded. But it is the man who constructed the notion of degradation and he is incapable of doing so because he has the authority, and authority is associated with the construction of most of the things in our lives like laws from the ancient times bordering from the lands of Hammurabi.
In this sense, we return to the politics of the body that the female is just a basic commodity in which labels are erroneously attached. The female body is just a vessel in which the patriarchal order constructs on how it will become a woman. By default, we see the female as a person, but in this twisted patriarchal ideology, the female body is but an object in which he attaches label such as beautiful, rural, urban, and even “woman.” But in this regard, however problematized even in the recurring centuries of patterned female oppression, there is nothing revolutionary or resistance involved where the female body is under control, because even the countries we have are regarded as mother, as well as nature, people exploit it, control it, colonize it with ideas and oppressive authority as the female body is where the flag of patriarchy is erected in full glory23. Thus, the hierarchy of the female is pinned down to the bottom just like in a sex position, that it is constantly a low class level or authority, or no authority at all, that it’ll always stay at the bottom deprived of any hierarchical power.
Conclusion: Women are Women
In the certain aspect, women are always women—and that line depends on who views it. Feminists will have a different view, while male will have their other view as well. The film depicts one of the most important parts of the film in which the female will always be subjected to her man, as much as this scene, Figure 8, will always be picturing the weakness of female power. It will always be therefore, that the woman’s sensibility be forged through her own ways, that she needs to wake up and fight for her self—to speak for herself and the greater human goal, as if she suppress her voice even further, she will never be emancipated by the colonizing power of male patriarchy24.
1. This is a paper required for our Literary Theory class in my undergraduate. This paper has been haphazardly done for only an hour and 30 minutes (excluding fully watching the film, reading sources, etc) and it may appear trashy. I will be revising this in the future. ↩
2. Jose F. Lacaba, “Movies, Critics, and the Bakya Crowd,” in Readings in Philippine Cinema, ed. Rafael Ma. Guerrero, (Manila: Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1987), 176↩
4. William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, “Affective Fallacy,” in Norton Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent Leitch, (New York: Norton, 2001), 1232-1261↩
5. Bakya crowd is also called a mass crowd or the crowd that has a cultural taste and level differing from the crowd that appreciates true aesthetic qualities of a film.↩
6. Jose F. Lacaba, Movies, Critics, and the Bakya Crowd, 177↩
7. Guy Debord. Society of the Spectacle, trans. David Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 2006), 129↩
8. Guillermo De Vega, Film and Freedom: Movie Censorship in the Philippines. (Manila: Self-published, 1975), 6↩
9. Softcore pornography↩
10. Petronillo Bn. Daroy, “Social Significance and the Filipino Cinema,” in Readings in Philippine Cinema, ed. Rafael Ma. Guerrero, (Manila: Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1987), 97↩
11. Rafael Ma. Guerrero, “Tagalog Movies: An Understanding,” in Readings in Philippine Cinema, ed. Rafael Ma. Guerrero, (Manila: Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1987), 114↩
13. Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 152↩
14. Ibid, 187↩
15. Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (London: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2002), 165↩
16. Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating (New York: Penguin Books, 1974), 115↩
17. Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, 287↩
18. Ibid, 293↩
19. Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth, 290↩
20. Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth, 177↩
21. Ibid, 76↩
22. Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, 335↩
23. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (New York: Norton, 1995)↩