• Cultural successes in a time of crises

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    Katrina Stuart Santiago

    Katrina Stuart Santiago

    It is interesting to me how it is at this time of crises, when the national government and the system of patronage politics it lives off is being questioned, that we are also looking at some pretty wonderful cultural successes.

    Yes, every other feminist would be angry at the idea of a beauty pageant, one that requires women to wear skimpy swimsuits, and be unbelievably thin, in order to be considered as “beauties.” But there was something distinct about that Ms. World win for Megan Young; halfway through the pageant, as they showed the scores of the candidates for the different parts of the competition, I thought, “It’s like the Olympics!”

    And certainly even the most feminist of us all, which might be me, could not help but feel elated at seeing that Philippine flag up there as part of the Top 10. Later on, as the scores revealed that Ms. Philippines was in fact number one on the list for the Top 10 candidates, one could not but feel proud of this spit of a girl who’s proven her intelligence: she also topped the interview portion of the pageant.

    Also, there was something extraordinary about the Ms. World Pageant—something I only notice now as for the first time in years, I was actually paying attention to it. This is a pageant that has more than just the usual swimsuit and long gown competitions, the interview, the camera capturing the candidates doing charity work. Here there are challenges which demand of contestants more than just beauty.

    Say, a Sports and Fitness Challenge that tests the physical fitness of candidates through a fitness test; the winners of the fitness challenge are then chosen for the series of sports challenges that include a volleyball tournament and tug-of-war. There is a Supermodel of the World Competition that demands of the contestants more than just a pretty face and lithe body, but more importantly the skills that are required of ramp models. If you watch Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model, you would know how difficult that is.

    And then there’s the Beauty With A Purpose challenge, which requires each candidate to submit a charity project that she would like to implement in her community. The best project wins a cash prize and points that add up to each candidate’s final pageant score.

    At some point, as I watched the Ms. World pageant, I realized that this might be the best pageant to win in, if only because at least it doesn’t limit the women to one-dimensionality and those expected answers. At least it is a pageant that traverses other aspects of being woman, that have nothing to do with how one looks.

    Too, anyone who knows of Megan Young’s career, and who has a sense of the way in which popular and celebrity culture works in this country, would know of the weight of this win. It is a win that reminds of how often we ignore the more intelligent of our talents, because we are afraid of those who are too articulate, those who are too outspoken—and yes that only applies to our women. Of course there’s the fact that she is Filipino-American, holding as she does a dual citizenship; apparently a double-edged sword, where one’s mestiza looks could easily land one a career in this country, but we like ‘em bland and without much of a personality.

    Here Megan shows us all what she’s made of, in a pageant that demands that its winners prove themselves intelligent and compassionate, physically fit and healthy, highly skilled, too. Hey Ms. World, you’re putting the Philippines in its place. That happens rarely enough.

    Another win meanwhile might be telling of the changing perceptions about talent, over and above the kind of imaging and fakery that the business of entertainment sells.

    I was one of those that stopped watching The Voice Philippines the moment Darryl Shy wasn’t chosen by coach Lea Salonga over Mitoy Yunting. Darryl had gotten more public votes than Mitoy, but Lea’s vote did him in. I was disappointed, thinking Darryl the most original voice and image on that contest stage; I also knew that this was a guy who would have a hard time building a career from scratch, and for whom a The Voice title would at least ascertain a debut CD.

    Ah, but at the Finals, what was I doing but voting for Mitoy, who was left with three other contestants all younger than him, two of whom were certain to have careers regardless of how much further in the contest they might go. When it was just Mitoy and Klarisse in the Top Two, it was clear that the public vote would either speak of a taste for the young diva, doing it like her mentor Sarah; or a taste for what was at least a new kind of singer, one who is far from looking or pretty, but who’s got artistry like no other. Mitoy already looked professional on that stage, confident and with nary uncertainty, and a voice that I could only imagine would be fantastic doing musical theater.

    That Mitoy won is a wonderful thing, and no, unlike every other reality singing contest, it isn’t about the drama of poverty and need, as it is merely a matter of talent. He is anti-thesis to the narra—male and female—as created and reimagined by the beauty clinics and plastic surgery. The fakery is something that the current state of things live off. There is no faking Mitoy, and neither should there be a need to: his talent speaks for itself.

    That he won is a level-up, isn’t it, for the Pinoy voting audience. One hopes it means more than just fantastic marketing by ABS-CBN.

    These are of course distractions from the bigger issues of corruption, patronage politics, and unaccounted for government funds. And yet what is extraordinary about these wins that we refocus on is that these are fleeting. Megan is already Ms. World and won’t be around for a while; we haven’t heard from Mitoy since he won. This is not to say either that they are not worth celebrating.

    But what is here and now, what is persistent, what is constant, is nation’s new-found anger against the system that we have all fallen victim to. It seems utterly disconnected from Megan and Mitoy; yet anyone who sits in front of the TV, or surfs through social media, and will click on the videos of Mitoy or the photos of Megan instead of learning what the General Appropriations Act actually says and does, would be hard put to say that they are not distracted. But such is the function of popular culture in the current state of nation. And at this critical juncture in our political history, we seem to know better than to stay distracted.

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