I had been sitting on the Pia Wurtzbach-US military presence issue for some time now, not quite feeling up to going against such a populist issue, but not quite being able to escape it either, what with her splashy homecoming, the re-affirmation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) by the Supreme Court, the re-investigation of the Mamasapano debacle, and the recent commemoration of the start of the Philippine-American War.
All these issues came together during that all-too-brief Q&A during the competition when Wurtzbach said that she ‘does not see anything wrong’ with welcoming Americans in the Philippines, noting that we have a ‘shared’ culture and tradition, in response to a question about the presence of US military in the country.
This answer immediately became controversial, almost as controversial as the crowning error at the end of the pageant. Not only activists, but even mainstream figures took Wurtzbach to task for her response, with Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago tweeting that they ‘needed to talk’.
But, what was more interesting afterwards was the differences in opinion regarding the Wurtzbach issue, particularly among progressive forces. The point of contention was how to handle what many Filipinos consider to be a high point in current events, but with the undeniably backward (and very public) opinion that this has foisted unto the adoring, and therefore unsuspecting, mass.
Many prominent personages have tried to balance the two, with a cautious combination of congratulations and critique. Even Jose Maria Sison has argued that Wurtzbach was only pertaining to Americans in general, not an erroneous position in the realm of international solidarity, but still somewhat of a semantic stretch.
Of course I draw the line at taking personal potshots at the beauty queen, but I think there is still something to be said for those who have taken the less popular stand. We cannot dismiss her answer and say that “it is only a pageant”, or “it is only her opinion”, on the one hand, and then congratulate her for her “feat” on the other. That doesn’t make any sense. I’d like to believe that bestowing congratulations is no light gesture, and that by offering it, one accepts that the achievement is truly worthy, and something we can genuinely be proud of. It calls for a closer examination of the nature of the achievements we seek to extol.
So, what exactly are we congratulating her for? This question goes to both progressive forces and the rest of the mass.
For the many, it is her triumphing on the so-called “world stage”. But I ask, isn’t that just another manifestation of our colonial mentality, that desire to fit “international” standards in order to feel validation and have a sense of accomplishment?
Others will say that winning a pageant is no walk in the park, it takes years of practice, preparation, sacrifice. I do not doubt that it took much hard work. But, so does mounting a daily noontime show that exploits and inures the poor. So does graduating as a top lawyer in order to ably defend rich and powerful criminals. Certainly, one may be congratulated on the basis of “hard work” per se, but I would like to dispense my salutations a bit more conscientiously.
But, she has brought honor to the country, everyone is toasting the beauty of the Filipina! Is it really “Filipina” beauty that is being admired? It seems to be more the image of the feminine that fits in the framework of a dominant, profit-driven patriarchy. It seems to be more the idea of femininity that promotes highly exceptional, if not unrealistic, body image goals. It seems to be more the idea of femininity that expects women to be overtly sexual one minute, and then virginal the next. It seems to be more the idea of femininity where you have to look good first before anybody listens to you, and when you do get to speak your mind, it has to be under 30 seconds and it’s in response to a “rigged” question.
Progressive forces went with the congratulatory flow perhaps in the spirit of building up a broader front with the majority of Filipinos, and with the optimism that this would precipitate serious talk and awareness. I, too, viewed Wurtzbach’s homecoming as a window of opportunity, I really did. That is why I first sat back. But now it is already apparent that the hoped-for substantive discussion on the role and presence of the US military in the Philippines has disintegrated, or has ignominiously been buried under asinine frivolities such as asking her to choose between the Miss Universe Crown, love, or pizza, and pushing for the creation of a love-team, with perhaps Atom, Noynoy, or whoever (the paragon of the supposed “independent” Pinay and the first thing we do when she gets back is to try to marry her off).
In hindsight therefore, we can see that at best, it was a slim window of opportunity. The friendly prodding for her to learn, to meet with victims of US military presence, even the Senator’s invitation, have all been for naught. She has stuck to her answer, and I’m afraid that it has all the more been validated what with the incredible frenzy that has surrounded her win and homecoming. This is no trivial apprehension, not with issues like foreign military presence and bases whose outcome has historically been as dependent upon public opinion as upon recourses in the courts and legislature.
And this is why a sharp line is needed now. Accommodating popular sentiment is one thing, pandering is another. Cultural revolutions will be won not by taking care not to offend, but with a principled vision of what-could-be-better. And in situations when the odds are already clearly against us (such as against a tsunami of popularity), we should do what any real human being of the universe would do, and that is to speak truth to power (or, in this case, to beauty).