The Department of Anthropology, University of the Philippines, held the first H.O. Beyer Talks for AY 2013-2014, with the theme “Popular Media and Gender Violence”, at the H.O. Beyer Museum, 4-6PM, 27 June 2013. It affirms the department’s commitment against gender violence that surfaced in the row between TV hosts Vice Ganda of ABS-CBN and Jessica Soho of GMA. The guest was Aida Santos of WEDPRO, with Rolando Esteban of the Anthropology Department, and Senior Lecturer Dr. La Rainne Sarmiento as moderator. The posts include the poster of the forum, the WEDPRO Statement, and the text of Esteban’s take on the issues inebriated in the row.
I would like to preface my reaction to Aida Santos’ take on the Vice Ganda and Jessica Soho row with the idea that Vice Ganda is an oxymoron, a figure of speech that yokes two contradictory words like ‘wolverine white,’ ‘sweet revenge,’ and my favourite, ‘fiend angelical.’ Indeed, how could vice (immoral act, evil, foible) be ganda (beauty, nice) at the same time, except as a terse paradox? There really is something in the name. To twist Clyde Mitchell’s idea a bit, naming is about “representation” and “consciousness speaking out.”
The night before the forum, I felt like Vice Ganda, thinking about my opening salvo, the pasabog, to get the audience stirred up. That was when I decided on a quote. “In the individual’s mental life someone else is invariably involved, as a model, as an object, as a helper, as an opponent; and so from the very first individual psychology [is] social psychology.” It is from Sigmund Freud.
A model is an image based on seemingly disparate traits from different individuals that coalesce into a self-contained unity. Still, I cannot cast Vice Ganda in the image of Greek comedians, comic theatre personas in Elizabethan theatre, or minstrels. I think that he would resemble closely slapstick and stand-up comedians and closest shock radio hosts. He is cast after a ‘unity’ of acts, comedic or otherwise, that to some may be ‘tasteless’, ‘slurry’, ‘lusty’, and something more – at the expense of somebody’s hiya, thus, pagkatao.
Many find Vice Ganda matalino, magaling, mahusay. It seems so, but on second thought, what he says does not form a unity, never coming together and making sense at all. What happens, instead, is that his vocabulary, his syntax, always succeeds in stunning the audience, who laugh before they can process the violence of his utterances. It is the kabog effect of what he says that has purchase, not his wit and/or timing, talino, husay, or galing. It is brief, stupefying, such that what the audience appreciates is the humour, while swept under the rug is the insult, thus silenced, eclipsed, forgotten, forgiven. While it is true that we joke a lot like Vice Ganda, I would like to maintain that joking has its limits that flow, deeply, from respect of hiya.
Vice Ganda’s talent is a predilection for cheap jokes, sexual innuendos, and affronts. While it may be racial/ethnic, about gender, or sexuality, it is always predatory on hiya. All the same, his act is as disparaging and derogatory as it is slanderous and insulting. His detractors find it reproachable as it incites reaction, criticism, and demands upbraiding, disciplining from the network and/or the slighted public.
I wonder if we have an image of an objective body form. If so, what is it? Why is cosmetic surgery lucrative? Is not Vice Ganda a Belo client? What do we make of Vice Ganda’s joke? Jessica Soho was the object of his joke that at the same time ridiculed fat, unmarried women, connoting intolerance of diversity in body forms. Malice, bigotry, chauvinism, sexism, obscenity, fantasy sex, can be appalling to many.
In another country, Vice Ganda would have lost his job because of network sensitivity to public outcry. That he is still working tells us that he has helpers because he still earns big for the network. While it is tempting to regard this in terms of its ‘economy’ only, one cannot gloss over its cultural dimensions. What are the values of the network? Does the network care about what Filipinos consider important like hiya? Does it try to reproduce hiya and other values among its talents? If not, is it above culture? If so, that would be bizarre, as media can.
Vice Ganda has gone a long way, but he still seems hounded by the phantasm of his past. I am referring to what George de Vos calls “role narcissism”, an “intense identification of one’s total self with one’s professional or social role, leading to the exclusion of other social meaning[s].” Vice Ganda is a product of stand-up comedic act that is risqué, irreverent, and individualistic. So caught up in role narcissism, he cannot look, feel, and think another way. He is too spaced-out from the sociality of his comedy and social responsibility.
He seems like the person that Freud refers to if not the person that Raymond Williams cites. “[T]he individual is a social creation, born into relationships, and DETERMINED by them?” He has difficulty accepting that the row between him and Jessica was public, calling his opponents in the public “nakikialam” and saying, “Pinapatawad ko na kayo”. Tagalogs would call this “patawad na may kabig” that makes his act not quite repentant. It is alarming that he sounded free of traditional super-ego guilt.
The rise of Vice Ganda from anonymity to fame is agency playing out in his favour. Still, the argument that he is also constrained by culture holds. This is what the public rancour is about: accountability in the practice of one’s craft and humility and contriteness when at fault. The idea of a culture that allows uncouthness and at the same time expects decency, subtlety, and restraint from an individual befuddles him. It is beyond him that culture, as civilization, is a contradiction. As pointed out by Freud, culture bestows us freedoms but at the same time coerces us to conform to norms. To quote Frederick Nietzsche, is it not that the “I” is a grammatical illusion? Alternately, think Edmund Murphy: there is no culture-free self, only self-in situation.
That is the human condition, cast in tension, between individuality and sociality, between freedom and control.