Of pre-debut pictorials and smashing symbols of tradition and alienating distance

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

ISABELLE Duterte, the daughter of Davao City Vice Mayor Paulo Duterte, and granddaughter of President Rodrigo Duterte, had a pre-debut pictorial at the Malacañan Palace, and she was pilloried not only by the usual anti-Duterte crowd, but even by many Duterte supporters.

In fact, what is remarkable about the rage is that there are those who were never angered by Noynoy Aquino’s forced ignorance and Janet Garin’s feigned innocence about the rushed Dengvaxia deal, and yet suddenly found a voice to condemn what is now framed as an ostentatious display of extravagance of Marcosian proportions.

Some say it even bordered on the sacrilegious, more so that in one of the photos the debutante was seen posing in front of the presidential seal. They allege that never have the symbol of presidential power been so debased.

And then you begin to ask the question of what is really wrong with some of us that we are so fixated on symbolisms, and yet we do not engage the material and the tangible. Some are so scandalized by how monuments, buildings and official emblems are debased and defaced, yet we are not as bothered when the institutions that they represent or symbolize are compromised by sheer incompetence, if not by corruption.


Here you are, facing the specter of a vaccine scandal worth P3.5 billion, now being sidelined by a photoshoot, just because it is allegedly a symbol of pompous extravagance. Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial revealed that two members of Congress, one of whom is the husband of Janet Garin, have pressured her to expand the coverage of the Dengvaxia vaccination. Former Budget Secretary Butch Abad practically admitted to committing technical malversation by transferring savings from a personnel-related item to a non-existent budget item. But both of these did not merit as much coverage in mainstream media, and condemnation by both anti- and pro-Duterte forces in social media, as Isabelle Duterte.

One can of course expect the anti-Duterte forces to milk as much negative mileage from this event if only to divert the attention away from the Dengvaxia scandal that threatens to send officials of the former Aquino administration to the throes of administrative and criminal prosecution. And besides, many in the ranks of the presidential critics already have the predisposition to extract as much mud and dirt from anything the President or his allies and relatives do.

What is however significant is that even supporters of President Duterte have expressed dissatisfaction over Isabelle Duterte’s use of Malacañang as a venue, and the presidential seal as background, for her photoshoot.

The main argument of the disapproving voices among the pro-Duterte crowd is the recognition that while no law has been broken, this has placed the President in a bad light, considering that he himself lives simply, and Isabelle’s alleged Malacañang caper contravenes that image by bordering on the extravagant and the showy. Again, at the heart of this matter is the symbolic mantle that the President is supposed to be evoking as a frugal public servant who does not value pompous ceremonies that he even refused to attend his own proclamation. It is the symbolism of the image of a President whose external façade of being in leather boots, jeans and barong with rolled-up sleeves is in direct contradiction to the visually opulent gowns worn by his granddaughter.

But what is forgotten is the equally compelling symbolism that is not externally worn, but is simply lived. It is of a doting grandfather who would do everything to please his grandchild. After all, this is the same man who once in the past made it possible for Sharon Cuneta to meet his daughter Sara, who is a fan of the singer-actress.

It is totally impossible that Isabelle’s pictorial at the palace was done without the knowledge or approval of the President. For his supporters to blame Isabelle, or her handlers, for the alleged indiscretion, cannot conveniently decouple the President from the act, for it is obvious that it had his blessings.

The argument that what happened was a faux pas, a whimsical caper of a debutante who would like to flaunt her newly found place in the corridors of power to show off to her friends, has painted the President in a bad light. It is a blatant insult to the President himself, for it paints him as a clueless occupant of the palace, or if not, as one who irresponsibly consented to the whims and caprices of his grandchild.

Thus, the point of disapproving the pictorial as a way of protecting the President does not convince because it paints him as either clueless or irresponsible.

President Duterte marched into our public imaginations as a symbol not of tradition, or jaded monuments, or alienating rituals. He came in smashing icons not only of power, but of tradition. He is the epitome of an iconoclast. He unabashedly deployed his rawness and his sometimes rude language as a way to deflate the conservative forces of our society. He brought the seal of the presidency closer to the people, not to be seen as a sacred symbol of power, but as an icon of the ordinary.

After all, ordinary people, even those who are not wealthy, have to borrow and mortgage things just to spend for the birthdays of their children.

There is no reason to believe that the monies spent for the pictorial, or the gown of the debutante, were taken from the taxpayers. All that was taken was the symbolism of Malacañang.

A better way of handling the Isabelle affair in Malacañang would have been not to apologize for it, but to simply give it the symbolism that it has effectively evoked, which is that of a family, and of the President as a doting grandfather. In this representation, Malacañan Palace becomes no longer a symbol of a distant, exclusive seat of power, but as an accessible and ordinary venue for a celebration.

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